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Migrations and the Andean borders in time of Covid-19

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

1. Introduction

Before pandemics, thousands of people were used to live as street vendors, domestic workers, or other precarious jobs in South America. Amid lockdown periods, firstly adopted at a national level, then at a regional one, (based on weekly updated risk maps), it suddenly became impossible for them, to pay for rent, food, and an internet connection, essential for family children’ remote learning.

People living in a country other than the native one, with a more or less recent migration experience, are among the groups more affected by Covid. Even before the pandemic, lots of foreign workers were living in conditions of vulnerability, on the verge of poverty.

The so-called “irregular” migrants are the last of the last. Those without official migratory documents in the host country are put into this category. For this reason, they are excluded from the healthcare system and from the economic support measures, adopted by the various governments to face the epidemic.

The epidemic has forced several expatriates to move again, to return to their homeland, or join family members in another country. However, they found borders barred by national governments, to contain the spread of Covid-19.

People in transit have specific protection needs. Non-recognition of them has intensified dangerous border crossings (due to extreme environmental and climatic conditions, or the presence of armed groups), physical violence by the police at the border, trafficking in persons, and violation of rights in border quarantine centers or areas of first arrival.

Examples of these new crises are three Andean borders: the first between Colombia and Venezuela, the second between Peru and Brazil, and the last one between Bolivia and Chile. The Andean countries[1] indeed have so far proved unable to manage these huge flows of people, often families with children, by letting national security issues prevail.

Figure 1: Art. 14 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (

2. Retornados between Colombia and Venezuela

In Colombia, with the outbreak of the pandemic and following quarantine, thousands of Venezuelans lost both their livelihood activity and the house. Who made a living with street trade before Covid, was in most cases evicted by the owners of the “arriendos paga diario[2]. This happened despite official measures against eviction during the state of emergency[3].

Many have thus decided to cross back the border between Colombia and Venezuela. Due to the closure of the border on March 14, 2020, those who decide to return home rely on "travel companies" promising to cross through the informal passages known as trochas by bus. It also means avoiding quarantine in Venezuelan isolation centers.

Transit through the trochas has grown exponentially. However, that’s one of the most dangerous areas of the continent, with huge flows of illicit trafficking and armed confrontations. Hence, those crossing the border clandestinely are exposed to the risk of violence, trafficking, and various abuses by authorities, irregular armed groups, military personnel, and smugglers.

Venezuela bogotà people
Figure 2: Bogotá, Venezuelans citizens protest against the suspension of public transport to Venezuela, April 29, 2020 (REUTERS, Luisa Gonzalez)

Venezuelan authorities send compatriots coming from Colombia to quarantine centers, where decent living conditions are not guaranteed. The Venezuelan NGO Fundaredes denounces the lack of water, food, gas, and the shortage of Covid tests. It also reports that guests have been threatened for protesting the conditions and sending evidence of the abuses outside.

The so-called "returning migrants" or retornados are, at the same time, victims of widespread hostility. It is a consequence of a public discourse criminalizing them. Through the "Plan Vuelta a la Patria" Venezuela arranged the voluntary repatriation of 17,522 fellow citizens from 8 countries[4], who were stranded abroad in a situation of vulnerability. However, in May 2020, Maduro had also declared that «Anyone who violates the migration system and enters the country will be considered a biological weapon and imprisoned».

3. A one-way bridge between Brazil and Perú

In the second half of February, groups of migrants occupied the bridge on the border connecting Peru and Brazil. Since the end of January, it is forbidden to enter Perú for people coming from Brazil, to avoid the spread of the local variant of Covid-19. The Peruvian authorities declared that making an exception would be too great a risk for the Madre de Dios region.

This department, almost entirely low-lying Amazon rainforest, has scarce access to healthcare facilities and is extremely vulnerable to the virus. Still, it appears that the border occasionally opens to allow Venezuelan citizens to pass through to Brazil.

About 380-400 people, mainly Haitians[5], are stuck in "a state of limbo". They come from different areas of Brazil willing to cross Peru and then continue their journey to other countries. They occupied the binational bridge, Integración, a few meters from the Peruvian Iñapari, and tried to force the frontier blockade but they were violently pushed back by the Peruvian police. 11 people have been injured, including two pregnant women and a child.

Iñapari women child police
Figure 3: Iñapari, women and children, in front of police barricade (EFE/Paolo Peña)

Brazil has been for years an important destination for Haitian[6] migrants. However, the "Brazilian dream" had succumbed to the effects of the pandemic, with the loss of jobs and opportunities for a better life.

Anyway, people stranded at the border have proposed some concrete solutions. They asked to take Covid tests and to be allowed to buy bus tickets to Ecuador in case of negative results. With a positive result, they would remain in quarantine for the time required, before they could continue the journey.

The authorities of the two countries have so far responded only with the use of armed forces. A vague hypothesis of special humanitarian repatriation flights to Haiti has been put forward. However, this idea has already been rejected by migrants.

4. The desperate journey from the Andes to the desert between Bolivia and Chile

With the pandemic, the crossings skyrocketed between the Bolivian village of Pisiga and Chile. It is a hard walking path, from the Andes mountain to the Atacama desert, at more than 3,000 meters above sea level. In January 3,600 people entered through uncontrolled passages, 10 times more than in January 2020. Three deaths for hypothermia have been officially reported. However, the victims of this desperate journey could be many more, given the unbearable heat at day and temperatures reaching -8/10 degrees at night. Furthermore, lots of people have been on their way for weeks or months, from Peru or even Ecuador or Colombia.

The first inhabited center is Colchane, among the ten poorest in Chile. The first city is Huara, 170 km away, an obligatory stop along Iquique (another 80 km). The idea is to get there a bus to reach somewhere else family members or friends already living in Chile. They indeed could give help and offer a safe place.

There are only a few villages between Colchane and Huara, with no electricity and poor water supply.

An Aymara[7]community of alpaca breeders lives here, where distrust and hostility to the migrants are common. The inhabitants of the area denounce thefts, attacks, and threats from travelers.

On the other hand, some gain from the situation. Migrant can pay up to one hundred dollars per person for a ride to Iquique, and even being abandoned along the way.

migrants colchane
Figure 4: Migrants on their way to Colchane (Diario Uchile)

More than 8,000 migrants arrived in Iquique from the northern border between December 2020 and February 2021. There were mainly Venezuelans, but also Colombians and Haitians.

The foreigners caught at the borders are taken to the “residencias sanitarias”. After the quarantine they often end up on the roadside, waiting for money sent by their relatives to join them in other cities. The Chilean authorities besides carried out forced repatriations of people having entered illegally: by air for at least 86 Venezuelan and Colombian citizens and by land for 52 Peruvians and Bolivians.

5. Conclusion

In Latin America, the closure of borders and the amendments made to migration policies have left thousands of people stranded in poverty, in a place without any familiar support network. The public health emergency has eliminated the opportunities offered before to foreign citizens. In the Andean region, it has also "reshaped" migratory flows, with a counter-exodus in Venezuela and the abandonment of host countries, even after many years, towards new destinations.

At this time of crisis, national public opinions are commonly asking for support measures targeting citizens and closed borders. Migrants in transit are only seen as spreaders of Covid-19.

The Andean region is experiencing a migratory and humanitarian crisis. It is imperative to respond to the urgent needs of all migrants in border areas. The militarization of borders and the expulsion or rejection of people, without assessing their vulnerability or protection needs, is neither ethical nor resolutive.

Institutions such as ECLAC[8] and UNHCR[9] seek to promote (and offer to support) a coordinated regional response, with the building of temporary shelters and the removal of military personnel from transit areas, since they are not trained to manage flows of unarmed migrants.

The Andean countries should work on common policies of reception, not only of border control. It is a broader new perspective that should be launched: the socio-economic inclusion of refugees and migrants can be an opportunity for all, within post-pandemic recovery.

Colombia mother daughter
Figure 5: Venezuelan mother and daughter at the Integrated Assistance Center in Maicao, Colombia (UNHCR/Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo)

A concrete positive experience comes from Colombia. In February, temporary protection was granted to displaced Venezuelans living in the country without regular status. Il will guarantee them access to the national healthcare system and Covid-19 vaccination programs. Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said: “this bold humanitarian gesture serves as an example for the region and the rest of the world. It is a life-changing gesture for the 1.7 million displaced Venezuelans who will now benefit from added protection, security, and stability while they are away from home”.

(scarica l'analisi)

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[1] The Andes Mountains cross 7 countries: from Venezuela on the north, passing through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia to the south, where they mark the border between Chile and Argentina. However, only Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia, are called Andean Countries because of the per shared cultural elements deriving from the Incan Empire.

[2] These are precarious accommodations obtained from abandoned buildings, with payment per day.

[3] The mayor of Bogotá approved an emergency ban on evictions in March 2020. [4] The first countries by number of returnees are Brazil (7,285), Perú (5,675), and Ecuador (4,596). [5] There are also citizens of Senegal, Burkina Faso, Pakistán, Bangladesh, and India. They all share the desire to reach directly Tumbes region in Perù and from there, cross the border with Ecuador and continue the journey towards Colombia, but also Mexico and the United States. [6] Dilma Rousseff's government, since 2012, has granted Haitians the right to obtain visas directly from the Brazilian embassy in Port-au-Prince, with minimum requirements, to combat irregular immigration and the growing traffic of Haitian migrants. [7] Aymara o Aymarà people are a group living in the Lake Titicaca basing among Perú, Bolivia, northern Chile and north-western Argentina. Aymara languages are an important part of Aymara identity. [8] United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. [9] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.


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