Chilean Abstention From Migration Agreement Sets Worrying Precedent For South America


Chilean president Sebastián Piñera is following through on a promise to tighten the country’s borders after backing out of a migration treaty last month. Piñera’s move sets a worrying precedent for South American countries who are facing large numbers of asylum-seekers fleeing countries like Venezuela and Nicaragua. Chile confirmed that it would no longer be a part of the United Nations Global Compact for Migration, and stated, in a press release, that in its opinion the treaty encouraged irregular migration and ran counter to Chile’s security interests. Chile joins a group of countries who fall on the opposite side of what is a broader question: is migration a human right?

Chile’s change of direction around migration is particularly worrying given its standing in South America. According to figures gathered from the World Bank, Chile has the highest GDP per capita of any South American country and the lowest crime rates. Because the country has one of the most stable and prosperous economies in the region, how it reacts to issues of migration is likely to create a precedent for its neighbours. This domino effect could be particularly worrying given the much larger number of migrants that enter other South and Central American countries. For example, 3.3 million people have fled Venezuela in the past three years with an estimated one million escaping to Colombia and 500,000 to Peru. Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, commented that “There’s a sense of solidarity amongst these nations, which is very admirable.” This solidarity displayed over recent years is in stark contrast to how Europe responded to similar numbers of refugees coming across the Mediterranean in 2015. Indeed, the panic which this migration generated was one of the driving forces behind drafting the Global Compact for Migration in the first place.

Despite this, there are signs that solidarity and goodwill are running out in the countries that have received the most refugees over the past three years. These destination countries are already facing problems of their own including increased poverty and weakened economies. Egeland told Reuters that “There’s no adequate education or assistance programs, which means that there will be more social tension within the group and between the groups, in the host communities.” Egeland’s statement highlights one of the main problems for migrants in this situation and that is a lack of support structures in their new country. Often life is not what they’ve hoped it to be and this causes social issues that the host country usually can’t afford to address. Such is the situation that the UN has appealed for $738 million in aid to assist South American countries in coping with an influx of migrants. The need for this aid is highlighted by evidence of the growing hostility being displayed by locals toward immigrants. In one example, security forces had to be sent into the Brazilian border town of Pacaraima after camps of Venezuelans were set alight. Isolated skirmishes like this are becoming more frequent and the issue needs to be tackled from a regional position – which is why Chile’s stance is worrying.

Chile’s use of sovereignty as a justification for backing out of the Global Compact for Migration ignores the real issue behind what is quickly becoming a regional crisis. Migration in this context needs to be viewed as an economic issue and not one based on sovereignty or rights. While countries like Venezuela continue to have massively dysfunctional economies, people will continue to leave and seek a better life elsewhere. By refusing to cooperate with the rest of world on this issue, Chile loses the chance to help strengthen the trans-national response to people smuggling as well as the ability to formalize the safe and dignified return of those people who do reach its borders and claim asylum. Their inward focus will do nothing to help Chile or the rest of South America, all it will do is cause animosity between locals and migrants without addressing the root economic causes of the issue. The decision to abstain from the Global Compact for Migration not only has implications within Chile but also with the rest of the world and, in particular, Chile’s regional neighbours.

Chile is often viewed by many observers as an economic example for the region, one which offers stability and prosperity. If Chile is prepared to make entering the country more difficult, then this is likely to encourage other countries in the area who are less well off to follow suit. Political analyst Robert Funk commented, “Chile’s choice signals an important change in its foreign policy and is a political statement that Piñera is veering towards a policy that appeases an electorate that has been leaning more towards the right.” Chile’s increasingly right-wing ideology is mirrored in Brazil with the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro, and could make it easier for neighbours to also pursue isolationist policies. But what this policy direction ignores is the fact that this is a global phenomenon which requires cooperation at both the regional and global level to address. How can Chile produce effective policies for migration when they refuse to work alongside the states where immigrants come from as well as the states where Chile’s own people go?

It is not trivial that Chile has taken this stance given how migration in Chile has increased six-fold over the last 20 years to close to 800,000 annually. It is significant that Chile is responding in this way because they are starting to feel the effects of migration that have been experienced so sharply in countries like Peru and Colombia. Recently Chile’s Housing Ministry identified 822 slums in what is a 78% increase on 2011 figures. Chile is right in stating that irregular migration has started to affect its sovereign interests but sadly is wrong about how the issue should be addressed.

Migration has always been a feature of human history and will continue far into the future. No border policy will stop people trying to leave poor conditions in search of a better life. With this in mind, it seems odd that states like Chile and the United States would ignore the chance to try and have it occur in a “safe, orderly and regular” way as the Global Compact for Migration promises. This aside, Chile would be better off trying to address the underlying economic issues that are pushing people towards more prosperous environments. If Chile would work alongside the global community in facilitating economic development in the countries that people are leaving, then they would likely be far more successful in curbing migration than if they focused on things like increased border patrols. While regional cooperation around a wide range of issues is unlikely given the poor state of relations between many South American countries, they need to see it as imperative to work alongside the global community on this issue. If more South American countries follow Chile’s example and turn inward, then what is already a regional crisis will continue to worsen.

Matt Adamson

Matt Adamson

A Policy Advisor for the Central Otago District Council, I am particularly interested in International Relations and Human Security Issues. I try to encourage people to think critically about the issues that don't always get the attention they deserve.
Matt Adamson

About Matt Adamson

A Policy Advisor for the Central Otago District Council, I am particularly interested in International Relations and Human Security Issues. I try to encourage people to think critically about the issues that don't always get the attention they deserve.