Bordered by the towering Andes to the east, desert to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the Antarctic to the south, Chile developed as a socially and culturally insular country unaccustomed to the presence of large numbers of foreigners. Its geographic isolation, which set up the first European immigrants as arbiters of who could arrive next, engendered early migration policies that were discriminatory. The desire to encourage white, European males to populate the country and "improve the race" was evident in policies that resulted in influxes of European immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries. Although the overall number of immigrants during this early period was relatively small, their presence transformed the country technologically, economically, religiously, and culturally.
Nonetheless, even most white migrants have bypassed Chile over the decades in favor of countries such as Argentina and Venezuela, where they perceived greater economic opportunities. Throughout most of Chile's history, the foreign born have remained between one and two percent of the total population; in fact, Chile is most known not for the flow of people into its borders but for the many who have left it. During the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, hundreds of thousands of Chileans fled the repressive political regime.
Because of these two factors—its isolation and its history of unregulated emigration as a result of political repression, Chile has few formally established migration policies, and the ones in force are outdated. However, the country's continuing economic growth and reconsolidated political stability, combined with the increase in intra- and extra-regional immigration during the past decade, are pushing the country to develop a modernized and coherent migration policy.
Early Migration to Chile
The first admission of immigrants to Chile was carried out selectively. 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. The 1854 census shows approximately 20,000 foreigners, most of them German colonists.
In 1882, this effort was reinforced through the establishment of the country's General Immigration Agency in Europe, which provided Chilean land in uncultivated areas to settler families. Between 1883 and 1895, over 31,000 northern Europeans settled in the southern colonies of Llanquihue and Valdivia. By the beginning of the 20th century, Yugoslavians were settling in the isolated regions of Antafogasta and Magallanes.
The selective policies achieved their aims. On average, over 52.5 percent of total foreigners 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. Peruvians and Bolivians who lived in the conquered territories were still considered foreigners because of their country of birth.
While Arabs and Asians arrived during this period through a more spontaneous process, they were not welcomed with the same open arms as their European counterparts. Initial migration policies privileged white Europeans, who were seen as possessing the knowledge necessary to drive the modernization of the country. Chilean society largely rejected and discriminated against this new group of migrants, who were considered both culturally inferior and an economic threat to the ruling class.
Table 1: Foreign-Born Population of Chile, 1865-2002
Changes in the Early to Mid-20th Century
World War I put an end to the selective encouragement of immigration to Chile. Fears of an influx of refugees in the aftermath of the conflict 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, they largely limited immigration to immediate relatives of foreigners who had a minimum of two years of residence in the country.
Although there was a slight increase in European immigration during this period as a result of agreements with the International Organization for Refugees, in 1947 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 of the country and as an overall shrinking of the stock of migrants.
The years between the 1907 to 1952 censuses are also notable for the growth of immigrant population of Arabs, who were fleeing conflicts in the Ottoman Empire (which then included Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon). 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. This migration was largely undocumented, and because the migrants were non-white, they were not welcomed with the open arms of their European predecessors.
Table 2: Foreign-Born Growth By Country of Birth, 1982-2002
A Country of Emigrants: Political Turmoil in the 1970s
Following decades of democracy, a U.S.-backed military coup in 1973 installed General Augusto Pinochet as Chile's dictator, marking a new period in migratory flows to and from Chile. During the economic and political crisis that followed, Chile became a country of emigration. Many Chileans departed for countries such as Argentina, Australia, Canada, Venezuela, and Sweden, several of which had open-door policies for refugees. During this era, more than 500,000 Chileans voluntarily left or were forced to flee the country. At the same time, the new social, political, and economic order discouraged new immigrants from entering.
The military government (1973-1990) imposed stricter controls on foreigners as part of its political agenda, although it also engaged in a new policy of encouraging foreign investment in the country. This facilitated, without directly targeting, 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. In this time frame, intra-regional migrants replaced Europeans as the dominant migrant stock in the country, but only in a relative sense, due to the fact that 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, if not in sheer 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 for its duration. As a result, the numbers of foreign born in Chile reached a historic low in 1982, when there were few more than 84,000 foreign born, or only 0.75 percent of the country's total population.
The most significant legislation that emerged from this period was the 1975 Immigration Act, which defined the various immigrant categories, and 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. His policy viewed immigration through the lens of national security and sought principally to prevent the entry of "dangerous elements" or terrorists.
To this day, to stay in the country, foreigners need to procure one of three different types of visas: tourist, resident, or permanent. Within the "resident" category, there are five different visas: contract, student, temporary, official, and refugee or asylee. Visitors with contract visas must be sponsored by a Chilean employer, while temporary visas are given to people considered to be beneficial for the development of the country, such as scientists, businessmen, and other professionals.
Despite the precedent of Chilean cooperation with European authorities in the wake of World War II, very few refugees or asylees find their way to Chile. While the category of refugee and asylee exists, in practice there have been relatively few refugees and asylum seekers since the return of democracy. Estimates range from 300 to 400 people over the past 10 years; however, little reliable data exists to support this number.
The 1990s and New Migration Flows
Two factors in the 1980s heralded a change in immigration flows to the country. First, the rejection of Pinochet's rule in a 1988 plebiscite encouraged the return of many Chileans and their families who had been living in exile. 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 into an attractive alternative for immigrants, and redirected some migratory flows toward the country. This attractiveness is reflected, in particular, in irregular migration flows. While no hard numbers of the undocumented population exist, in 2001 it was estimated that there were anywhere between 15,000 and 20,000 undocumented immigrants in the country, mainly visa overstayers.
At the same time, the repression had that led to the selection of immigrants of greater economic means gave way to a more liberal policy of visa issuance. Between 1986 and 2002, the number of temporary visas granted by the government grew from 4,777 to 30,031, indicating a transformation of migration from a state-sponsored project to a spontaneous flow. Despite increased acceptance of these new flows, however, official government policy towards migration (embodied in the 1970s legal framework) has remained effectively unchanged.
The general results of the National Census of 2002 show a profile of a Chile whose demographics are slowly changing. The most notable change in recent years has been the increasing presence of Argentines, Peruvians, Bolivians, and Ecuadorians, of which the first two represent almost half of all immigrants (47 percent). The economic and political situation in Peru has had a particularly strong impact on immigration flows to Chile. Thus, although Argentines continue to represent the largest group of immigrants in Chile, the Peruvian immigrants of the last decade have garnered the most public attention.
This awareness stems from two unique traits of the Peruvian migrant streams. First, one of the salient characteristics of this migration is the predominance of women, who are mainly employed as maids in middle-class Chilean homes. Despite efforts by the Chilean government to combat their exploitation, Peruvian domestic workers earn low wages even by Chilean standards, and often have to work long hours with few days off. Second, while Peruvians represent barely 21 percent of the foreign population in Chile, in the past decade their number has quadrupled. Many Chileans see Peruvians as taking employment from Chileans, and as a result their presence has generated vigorous debate in the media. Several studies reflect a growing reluctance on the part of Chileans to accept the permanent integration of Peruvians into the country.
Table 3: Year of Arrival by Sex for the Five Largest Countries of Origin Groups in Chile: 2002
Despite the increase in migration flows to the country over the past decade, it is important to note that Chile is still not the principal destination for migrants in the region. By 1992, the percentage of foreign born (three percent) was double the intercensal growth (1.4 percent) of the general population, but still did not surpass 0.86 percent of the total population. The 2002 census shows immigrants still do not exceed 1.22 percent of the total population in Chile. Nonetheless, immigration flows, especially from Andean countries, are expected to continue to increase in size and importance as long as Chile remains an economically and politically stable option in the region, and as the configuration of new communities and migratory networks grows and strengthens.
Towards a 21st Century Migration Policy
The growth of immigrant arrivals, particularly the 15,000 to 20,000 undocumented during the second half of the 1990s, has pushed Chile to modernize its immigration laws and to adopt a comprehensive migration policy. In 1998, the government of Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei developed a regularization program to permit irregular immigrants to obtain a temporary visa, which would be valid for a year. This process regularized 16,764 Peruvians and 2,116 Bolivians; but overall, few immigrants took advantage of the program because of the cost and time involved in the process.
It remains to be seen whether the government will expand the regularization program and expedite the process. Today, the Socialist government of President Ricardo Lagos is trying to formulate laws and polices that embrace the potential development gains migrants offer, as well as to anticipate potential problems. Initial drafts of Chile's migration policies suggest that the government is trying to position Chile as an open and receiving country. While nothing has been formally agreed upon, the government's stated objectives are to regularize all those who reside within its territory; improve the link with Chilean nationals in the exterior; integrate and modernize the technology in border areas; and encourage regional cooperation on migration issues with other South American countries.
An important element of Chile's migration policy is the maintenance of relations with Chileans in the exterior. It is estimated that over 800,000 Chileans live abroad, and recently the National Institute of Statistics conducted the first round of registration for Chilean nationals living in the exterior. The results of the survey, which collects information on sex, age, place of birth, and education level, will be used to coordinate and improve public policies geared towards Chileans living abroad. These policies are not necessarily meant to encourage Chileans to return, but rather to attract investment in the country's private sector. More investment would provide a profitable connection to overseas Chileans, since their remittances are not a significant factor in the economy.
Another aspect of Chile's new migration policy has to do with the modernization of its border crossings. As South American borders become more integrated through the MERCOSUR (Southern Common Market) bilateral agreements, the trafficking of both drugs and people is a concern for the region. Chile is now focused on securing its northern borders with Peru and Bolivia. And while Chile has a long history of cooperation with Argentina in terms of facilitating the movement of people, many of its border crossings have slow and outdated systems that need to be modernized. The Chilean government is currently working with border officials to update technology and integrate systems of information to make crossings quicker and more secure.
Finally, since 1999, Chile has been an active participant in the South American Conference on Migration, a regional consultative process that brings together government officials to cooperate on migration issues. The annual conference, which involves most countries in the continent, has until now focused on generating discussion and policies on themes such as migration and development, promoting the human rights of migrants and their families, strengthening the ability of governments to manage flows, linking with nationals in the exterior, and harmonizing systems of information and migration legislation. After five years of this process, its greatest success has been in increasing dialogue and cooperation among countries in the region.
All of these steps suggest that Chile is making proactive moves on migration. This is a well-timed effort, considering that the country's growing economic strength in the region will most likely continue to attract migrants from within the region and beyond. Anticipating the demographics of future flows will assist the country in developing holistic migration policies that will benefit both migrants and nationals alike. The country's migration policy is still in an early stage of development, and various integration policies are being planned and debated. Any successful integration policy will need to facilitate the process of obtaining visas, widen the educational opportunities of the children of immigrants, and create a program that secures immigrants the right to political participation, social security, and health benefits. Such measures will provide critical momentum for overcoming the greatest challenge: meaningfully integrating immigrants into the culturally conservative and closed Chilean society.
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