UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is stepping up its presence and the delivery of assistance in Chile’s northern border, to respond to the critical needs of a growing number of Venezuelans arriving by foot in the South American country.
Since November 2021, according to local authorities, between 400 and 500 refugees and migrants from Venezuela have been crossing the border from Bolivia into Chile every day. They are driven by the intention to reunify with family members, as well as the economic impact of Covid-19 which left many destitute.
Most Venezuelans use irregular routes, braving the remote Atacama Desert, where dangers include the risk of sexual exploitation and abuse by criminal groups. They come on foot, without appropriate clothing for the extreme weather conditions of the desert, where days are very hot and night temperatures can drop to -20oC.
Many arrive hungry and in ill health, suffering from malnutrition, dehydration, hypothermia and altitude sickness. Some 21 people have lost their lives at Chile’s northern border since the beginning of the year.
Those newly arrived often lack proper shelter and are forced to sleep out in the open. As they lack proper documentation, they cannot find regular jobs and, without resources, face difficulties in continuing their journey from border areas to other cities.
“Children, adolescents, pregnant women and the elderly often need urgent medical support after several days traveling on foot. All of them hope to find safety and stability in Chile,” said Rebeca Cenalmor-Rejas, Head of UNHCR’s National Office in Chile. “UNHCR is strengthening its response at the northern border, to support national, regional and local authorities in guaranteeing safe access and improving reception conditions.”
In coordination with the authorities, and with the support of partners, UNHCR gives information and legal counselling to newly arrived Venezuelans. The Agency also provides food, cash assistance, vouchers for fuel, medical care, emergency shelter, daycare facilities, as well as basic relief items, such as blankets and winter clothes. Since the start of the year, with the available resources, UNHCR has assisted 20,000 refugees and migrants from Venezuela in the northern regions of Chile.
UNHCR is increasing its staffing and partners at the northern border, aiming to reach more vulnerable Venezuelans. To assist in controlling COVID-19, UNHCR also works with local and national authorities to set up a center in the town of Iquique where new arrivals will undergo the required quarantine in safe and dignified conditions.
In parallel, anticipating that Venezuelans will start looking for opportunities in other parts of the country, during 2021, UNHCR strengthened its collaboration with five partners to distribute assistance in cities in southern Chile.
“UNHCR, as part of the inter-agency response, is committed to offering relief to those in need and the communities welcoming them. However, timely support by the international community is crucial for us to continue expanding our programmes”, added Cenalmor-Rejas.
In 2022, UNHCR will need a total of US$20.3 million to ensure adequate humanitarian assistance, and support Venezuelan communities to become self-reliant across the country. In total, Chile is home to an estimated 448,100 refugees and migrants from Venezuela. This figure does not count thousands who have entered the country through irregular border crossings.