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Chile: A Growing Destination Country in Search of a Coherent Approach to Migration

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Chile: A Growing Destination Country in Search of a Coherent Approach to Migration

Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who helped spearhead a law that aided refugees in 2010, welcomes Palestinian refugees to Chile. The government has taken a piecemeal approach to migration policy.

Cornered in the southeast extreme of the Americas, Chile developed as a socially and culturally insular country unaccustomed to the presence of large numbers of foreigners. Its geographic isolation between the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean set up early European immigrants as arbiters of who could arrive next, engendering early discriminatory migration policies. The desire by established immigrants to encourage other white Europeans to populate the country and "improve the race" was evident in policies that resulted in the influx of European immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries. Although the overall number of immigrants during this early period was relatively small compared to other countries in the Southern Cone, their presence transformed the country technologically, economically, and culturally.

Chile is mostly known as an immigrant-sending country, as throughout much of its history, the foreign born have remained a tiny share (1 percent to 2 percent) of the total population. Between 750,000 and 1 million Chileans live abroad (about 6 percent of the country's population), according to the latest governmental estimates in 2005.

Today, continuing economic growth and reconsolidated political stability have positioned Chile as an emerging country of destination. Over the past three decades, Chile has experienced a steady increase in its foreign-born population. But because of its isolation and history of emigration, Chile has few formally established migration policies, and the ones in force are outdated. With a large community abroad and the increase in intra- and extra-regional immigration during the past decade, the country has shown the need for a modernized and coherent migration policy. However, governmental efforts toward achieving comprehensive migration policy have been mostly piecemeal, making this goal elusive.

Immigration to Chile: From the Origins of the Republic to the 1973 Military Coup

The first admission of immigrants to Chile was selective. In 1824, the government enacted a law to encourage Europeans (primarily Swiss, Germans, and English) to establish factories in urban centers as well as to populate sparsely inhabited southern areas. By 1854, the census showed approximately 20,000 foreigners, most of them German colonists.

In 1882, this focus on European migrants was reinforced through the establishment of the Chile's General Immigration Agency in Europe, which offered Chilean land in uncultivated areas to settler families. Between 1883 and 1895, more than 31,000 northern Europeans settled in the southern colonies of Llanquihue and Valdivia. By the beginning of the 20th century, Croatians settled in isolated regions in the far north and far south.


Table 1. Chile (1865-2009 est.): Total and Foreign Born (FB) Populations
Census YearTotal PopulationIntercensus Growth Total PopulationFB Population% of Total PopulationIntercensus Growth FB Population% of Europeans Over FB% of Latin Americans Over FB% of Others Over FB
18651,819,223 21,9821.21 53.741.44.9
2009 (est.)16,928,87312.0352,3442.0891.0n/an/an/a
Source: Martínez (1997); INE 2002


The selective policies achieved their aims. On average, more than 52.5 percent of the foreign-born population residing in Chile between 1865 and 1920 were Europeans. The exception was in the census of 1885, when Latin Americans accounted for 67.2 percent of the foreign born. This phenomenon was a result of the 1879-1893 War of the Pacific, when Chile's northern borders were redrawn. This period also saw the first immigration of Chinese immigrants to the northern part of the country.

World War I put an end to the selective encouragement of immigrants. Fears of an influx of refugees in the war's aftermath encouraged lawmakers to restrict the entry of foreigners in 1918. The advent of World War II strengthened this position, with the government requiring all foreigners entering the country to have proof of sufficient funds to sustain themselves for six months. In addition, immigration was largely limited to immediate relatives of foreigners who had a minimum of two years residence in the country.

Although there was a slight increase in European immigration at the end of World War II, in the late 1940s the foreign-born population began to decline. In the decades following the war, the number of immigrants decreased, both as a percentage of the total population and as an overall shrinking of the stock of migrants. For example, Spanish immigrants were the second-largest foreign-born group in the country in 1982, mostly due to refugee immigration from the Spanish Civil War. Their numbers have since fallen, as older migrants died and fewer migrated to Chile.

Between 1907 and 1940, populations of Arab immigrants increased from Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, as many fled turmoil in the unraveling Ottoman Empire. Enough Arab migrants settled in Chile that by 1930 this group accounted for more than 15 percent of the foreign-born population, and by 1952 more than 20 percent. Notwithstanding the small size of the Arab immigrant population (8,000 to 10,000 people came between 1885 and 1940), they have been active participants in the economic, political, and intellectual life of the country.

Immigration during Chile's Dictatorship

Following decades of democracy, a military coup in 1973 installed General Augusto Pinochet as Chile's leader, marking a new period in migration. During the economic and political crisis that followed, Chile became a country of emigration as more than 500,000 Chileans voluntarily left or were forced to flee for countries such as Argentina, Australia, Canada, Venezuela, France, and Sweden. At the same time, the new social, political, and economic order discouraged new immigrants from entering.

The dictatorship, which remained in power until 1990, imposed stricter controls on foreigners as part of its political agenda, while engaging in a new policy of encouraging foreign investment. This facilitated the arrival of migrants with higher levels of education and more economic resources. Foreign currencies and technology were given privileged status in Chile's new neoliberal economy, and the immigration that accompanied them was seen as beneficial to the country as well. Intra-regional migrants replaced Europeans as the dominant migrant stock, but only in a relative sense, as European migration had dropped so sharply. At the same time, a large number of Korean immigrants, attracted by economic incentives offered by the military regime, began to overshadow Arab migrants in terms of economic power and numbers.

Despite the slight increase in educated and comparatively wealthy immigrants, the brutality and repression of the Pinochet regime discouraged most migrants from settling in Chile. As a result, in 1982 the number of foreign born in Chile reached a historic low of 84,000, just 0.75 percent of the country's population.

The most significant migration legislation that emerged from this period was the 1975 Immigration Act, which defined various immigrant categories, as well as the functions of the office that regulated the entrance, residence, control, and expulsion of foreigners. This law, which is still in effect today, was part of Pinochet's broader effort to control immigration. This policy viewed immigration through the lens of national security and sought principally to prevent the entry of "dangerous elements" or terrorists.

To remain in the country, foreigners need to procure one of three visas: tourist, resident, or permanent. Within the "resident" category, there are five separate visas: contract, student, temporary, official, and refugee or asylee. Contract visas are sponsored by a Chilean employer, while temporary visas are given to people considered beneficial for the development of the country, such as scientists, businessmen, and other professionals. Though the category of refugee and asylee exists, there have been relatively few refugees and asylum seekers since the return to democracy. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated refugees and asylum seekers in Chile at about 1,900 individuals in 2010. It's important to note that no category exists for "migrant" or "immigrant."

New Migration Flows: The 1990s Onward

While still not a principal destination country for migrants, Chile has gradually become a more popular option. The most recent census, in 2002, showed the foreign born comprising 1.22 percent of the population (about 184,400 migrants). By 2009, the Departamento de Extranjeria y Migración estimated the foreign-born population exceeded 2 percent of the population (about 352,300 migrants) for the first time since 1940 (see Table 1). This number is still low compared to the stock of migrants living in other countries in the region, such as the more than 1 million migrants from Latin America residing in Argentina.

Three factors heralded a change in immigration flows. First, the rejection of Pinochet's rule and transition to democracy in 1990 encouraged many exiled Chileans to return. Second, the increasing economic stability of the country, in conjunction with the deteriorating economic and political situation of other nations in the region, made Chile an attractive alternative for intra-regional immigrants. Third, tightening of border controls in the United States increased the physical risks and financial costs of migration. As a result, some migratory flows that might have otherwise headed north have been redirected.


Table 2. Chile (1882-2009 est): Foreign born population according to census and DEM* estimates and intercensus growth of foreing born population
Country of OriginCensusDEM estimate*Intercensus growth (%)Percentual growth
South America       
North America       
     United States4,6676,2497,7539,72033.924.125.4
Other Countries24,41330,89738,07763,24926.623.266.1
* DEM: Departamento de Extranjeria y Migracion, Ministerio del Interior, Chile (Department of Immigration, Secretary of Interior, Chile)
Source: Martinez, 2003; Martinez, 2011


This last point is underscored by the growth of the Latin American migrant population within the country. The numbers of Bolivians, Ecuadorans, and Colombians more than doubled during the inter-census years, with most of the growth coming from women, who now make up 54 percent, 55 percent, and 58 percent of those migrant populations, respectively. However, the most notable trend between 2002 and 2009 was the rapid growth of the Peruvian population. Peruvian migrants are now estimated to account for nearly 131,000 of the Chile's 352,000 migrants, a 245 percent increase since 2002. Nearly 57 percent are women.


Table 3. Chile (2009 est): Foreign born population by sex. Main receiving countries
United States5,32254.754,39845.25
Other countries32,75551.7930,49448.21
Source: Chile Departamento de Extranjeria y Migracion, 2010


These recent flows have changed the landscape of migration in Chile. Peruvians are now the largest migrant group and continue to grow at a steady rate. This is reinforced by the continued growth of a tight-knit Peruvian community — considered to be the only true immigrant enclave in the country — in Santiago, the nation's capital. Most female Peruvian migrants are employed as domestic workers in middle-class Chilean homes. Concentrated as they are geographically in certain sectors of Santiago, these immigrants have a higher visibility than other migrant populations, and as such, are the focus of most of the negative public and media attention about immigration to Chile — specifically, a perception that many of these immigrants are in the country illegally.

Though no official estimates are made on illegal entries, Chilean police reported in 2005 that more than 2,000 immigrants were caught between 2000 and 2005. The majority of unauthorized migrants are likely to be visa overstayers or those who have been fired or whose work contract has expired. Since a work visa is connected to a work contract, there is little room to change jobs without violating visa status.

Although the official discourse is one of openness, this attitude is not necessarily supported by its citizens. The 2007 Latinobarómetro study ranked Chile 15th out of 18 Latin American countries on openness to migration; only about one-third of those surveyed (35 percent) agreed that foreigners should have the same rights as natives. The study concluded that this unwelcoming attitude was not targeted at a particular type of immigrant, but in general any immigrants, regardless of their characteristics.

A Country of Emigrants

Despite its more recent draw for immigrants, Chile continues to have a negative net migration. Current governmental estimates show that for every one immigrant residing in the country, three Chileans are living abroad. The main receiving country has been historically Argentina, which has a strong demand for labor and offers highly industrialized urban centers. Argentina has more than 429,000 first- and second-generation Chileans, the largest Chilean community abroad. Since the return to democracy in 1990 Chile has also seen growth in emigration to the United States and Europe, with Spain in particular being a large draw for Chileans seeking postgraduate studies.

The military coup of 1973 produced the largest population movement in the history of the country, nearly doubling the Chilean population abroad with half a million new emigrants. These emigrants include exiles without legal right to return, political prisoners who were deported, and economic migrants and their families forced to flee the economic policies enacted by the military regime.

The most current estimates are that about 50 percent of those exiled returned as a result of the policy of selective return initiated by the dictatorship in 1983 and the 1990s. Between 1990 and 1993, the democratic government created a return program that attempted to attract former exiles and help with their reintegration. Although this program was used by about 56,000 people, it did establish contact with more than 100,000 Chileans living abroad.

Step By Step: Chile's Current Migration Approach

The recent increase in immigrant arrivals has tested Chile's ability to modernize its immigration laws and the official government policy toward migration (embodied in the 1970s legal framework) has remained effectively unchanged. In 1998, the government of Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle developed a legalization program to permit immigrants to obtain a yearlong temporary visa. This process gave 16,764 Peruvians and 2,116 Bolivians temporary legal residency, but without any path toward permanent residency, most immigrants fell out of legal status at the end of this period.

The government of Ricardo Lagos (2000-06) focused resources on modernizing border security, while adopting a more open stance toward migrants. This led to integrated border facilities with Argentina and similar facilities in development with Peru and Bolivia. Although not directly connected with any formal migration policy, this process led to the creation of a "Borderlands Card," which allows people in border communities to easily travel to cities in the neighboring country for business, medical visits, and tourism. During this time, the country ratified an international convention on migrant worker rights and developed policies to assist in integration. Among those enacted was the right for immigrant children to attend school and be treated equally to native students regardless of migratory status. A second policy provided health access in public hospitals to immigrant children and pregnant women.

President Michelle Bachelet, who led Chile's government from 2006-10, determined to go further in positioning Chile as an open and receiving country. Her administration proposed policies that would improve the link with Chilean nationals in other countries and facilitate immigrant integration in Chilean society. Most significantly, Bachelet implemented a program legalizing 50,705 migrants between October 2007 and February 2008. As with the earlier legalization program, it provided temporary visas for a year, with the possibility of an additional year extension if the immigrant was able to find work.

Although Chile has never been considered an important resettlement destination, in 2008 the Bachelet government began developing policy specific to refugees. The moral argument was the belief that Chile needed to repay a debt of solidarity to the rest of the world for having received the half million exiles of Pinochet's dictatorship. In 2010 the government consolidated all international treaties and agreements regarding refugees and asylees signed by the Chilean state into the Law of the Refugee. Currently, up to 95 percent of asylum seekers and refugees are from Colombia, but in the last decade Chile has received smaller numbers (see Table 4) from countries such as Cuba, Haiti, Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Iraq.


Table 4. Chile (2005-2010): Refugees and Asylum seekers by year
Asylum seekers107338518890498274
Total population of concern9131,4731,8942,5032,0371,895
Source: UNHCR Statistical Online Population Database, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 2011


In October 2008, Bachelet developed the Instructivo Presidencial No. 9 (Presidential Instructive No. 9), a nonbinding document that attempted to position Chile as a country open to immigration and sought to manage migration flows without discriminating against migrants. These directives have not been adopted in a coherent manner, however. A recent report by a coalition of NGOs in Chile found that not all schools allow unauthorized immigrant children to study. As the Chilean Constitution denies the right of nationality to transient foreigners, some officials consider unauthorized migrants as transients and thus Chilean-born children are denied nationality. As with previous administrations, the policies adopted during Bachelet's presidency fell short of comprehensive migration policy, and while hailed as an important step, were also criticized as reactionary and piecemeal.

In October 2010, the country's newly elected president, Sebastian Piñera, announced that his government was preparing a comprehensive migration policy. Not much progress has been made since. One of government’s key migration focuses during the past 20 years has been an effort to reconnect with Chilean communities abroad. One of the diaspora's main requests, the right to vote in Chilean elections, is being debated by the Parliament and the current government has proposed electoral participation if and when migrants can prove permanent connections with Chile.

Awaiting a Comprehensive Migration Policy

Chile's existing migration policy was created at a time when foreigners, particularly from neighboring countries, were considered threats to national security and irrelevant to the economic and social development of the country. Immigrant advocates say the lack of an updated policy precludes the government from being proactive toward migration and societal integration. Although Chile has actively participated in conventions on non-discrimination, there are no immigrant integration policy initiatives at the government level. Since most open discrimination cases are not reported to police (and the ones that do seldom make it to trial), a false sense exists that there is no need for direct governmental involvement on integration policies.

Notably, any successful migration policy would need to address issues on how to separate the work visa from the employer, allowing for labor mobility without letting immigrants fall into unauthorized status; widen the educational opportunities of immigrant children; and develop programs that improve immigrants' access to political participation — beyond the right to vote after five years of residency; and that facilitate access to housing and social services in general. Such measures would provide critical momentum toward integrating immigrants meaningfully into the culturally conservative and closed Chilean society.

Most of the immigration issues that Chile does see arise from the lack of a proper legal framework to govern migration flows. Outdated laws do not comply with recommendations of human rights organizations, nor are they in accordance with the new realities of a democratic country immersed in a globalized world. While the development of a holistic migration policy would benefit both migrants and nationals alike, this process must take place in a context that considers the needs of both and educates Chileans on the benefits of moving toward a more inclusive and culturally rich society.

Amanda Levinson is founder and Principal of ThirdSpace Consulting.

Cristian Doña-Reveco is a doctoral candidate in sociology and history at Michigan State University. His research involves the intersection of history and biography in the migration process from the Southern Cone of America to the United States.

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