SEATTLE, Washington — In 2002, there were only 50 Haitians in Chile. Now, there are around 150,000, making up 10% of Chile’s migrant population. Widespread corruption and poverty, along with devastating natural disasters, pushed Haitians out of their home country. Tighter U.S. immigration policies caused them to look south to start a new life, with Chile being a popular destination due to its relative economic and political stability.
Troubles from the Start
As the amount of Haitians in Chile increased, they faced growing resistance from Chileans and encountered troubles before even entering the country. Many Haitians receive their plane tickets from family members and friends already living in Chile who bought them through informal channels. To ensure their tickets are legitimate and that they have a seat, many have to show up at the airport in Haiti days in advance, sometimes resorting to bribery.
Migrants must have at least $1,000 cash to move to Chile, forcing them to turn to “middlemen” who supply the cash to them upfront with the understanding that the prospective migrant would owe them 10% or more of the cost they fronted, adding even further to their financial burden. Additionally, after seeing 1% of its population flee to Chile from 2017 to 2018 alone, the government of Haiti made it more challenging for its citizens to leave by charging first-time travelers extra to receive their passports.
Hardships for Haitians
Originally enticed to move to Chile by reports of endless job opportunities, once there, “employers abuse and underpay them. Landlords crowd them into overpriced, closet-sized rooms. Scam artists try to sell them work contracts that could put them on the wrong side of the law.” These fake work contracts caused some Haitians to lose their work visas. The closet-sized rooms often have no running water and a single bathroom shared with up to 15 residents. There are even reports of some Haitians forced to sleep in stables.
It is less about their immigrant status, but rather their skin color and the perception of their home country which causes many Haitians in Chile to experience isolation, mistreatment and mockery. Haitians reported that Venezuelan and other Spanish-speaking migrants receive better treatment and have more opportunities for jobs. Misleading information and stereotypes portray Haitians, many of whom came to Chile speaking only Creole, as poor, dirty and low-skilled. Although some Haitians are immigrating with an advanced degree, Chile has been slow to officially recognize foreign degrees.
With the addition of the COVID-19 pandemic, the discrimination against Haitians has only escalated. At one point, the positive test results of some Haitians were publicly broadcasted, breaking patient confidentiality and causing Chileans to become more upset over their presence as a group. With tensions rising over the past few years, the Chilean government has looked to address what it sees as an immigration issue.
In April 2018, President Piñera implemented specific visa processes for Haitians. With the change in Chile’s migration policy, if Haitians have family members already living in Chile, they can now apply for a reunification visa with the help of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a United Nations agency. IOM opened the first Visa Service Centre for Chile in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, in August 2018. The other option is for Haitians to obtain a three-month tourist visa with no right to employment. It was also set that a sponsored work visa is needed before arrival in Chile to have the ability to legally work. While this change in migration policy established a clear legal framework for Haitians to enter Chile and granted legal status to around 300,000 undocumented immigrants, it restricted the number of Haitians that could travel to Chile legally. By April of 2019, about a year after these policy changes, visa requests by Haitians fell by 62%.
One reason for this decline is that Haitians have to go through Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, to obtain the reunification visa. A significant number of Haitians are looking to travel to Chile from Brazil, where they originally went in search of a better life. Additionally, this new migration policy does not account for the many Haitians fleeing their country due to pervasive corruption and poverty, meaning those without family members already in Chile will have a more difficult time gaining permanent status.
All is Not Lost
While Chile struggles with systemic racism and requires more policy reform, there have been glimmers of hope for Haitians. When they can find steady work, Haitian migrants make significantly higher incomes than they did in Haiti. Additionally, within the more stable environment that Chile provides, Haitians can enjoy daily activities such as going to the market without fear of street violence.
Moreover, there have been local officials who have been working hard to better the lives of Haitians in Chile. The mayor of Quilicura, Juan Carrasco, made sure health centers and schools have Creole-speakers to assist the many Haitians. There has also been an effort to make public services available to all immigrants as well as to provide Spanish lessons and help them find work. Local workers have also reached out to help employ Haitians. Small business owner Rodrigo Castro, for instance, has provided a place to live and work for those that he can.
The consulting conglomerate, PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC) Chile has been making efforts through its initiative, “#Chileincluye,” to ease the burden on immigrants relocating to Chile. They have been working to do this partly through the creation of free phone apps designed to provide useful and necessary information about Chile in the user’s native language, already assisting more than 15,000 users. PwC Chile has also been working with local health institutions to provide better care to non-Spanish speaking patients through the provision of better language services. Lastly, PwC Chile has been working to help immigrants gain formal employment through the establishment of an online job platform as well as the “development of the first social franchise in Chile under which refugees can start their own food business.”
Although the struggle for Haitians in Chile is far from over, Chile is taking active steps toward making the country a better place for Haitian immigrants. From the government to businesses that care, these efforts are paving the way for Chile to be the land of hope that Haitians had once envisioned.
– Scott Boyce