Fearing Border Closure After Presidential Election, Migrants Coming to Chile in Droves

Chile is experiencing a flood of migrants ahead of Sunday's presidential runoff election, as many looking to enter the country worry such passage could end if an anti-immigration candidate prevails.

According to Chilean authorities, over 25,000 migrants crossed the border this year via the Atacama Desert, the driest nonpolar desert on Earth, according to Live Science—an increase from 16,500 last year. The U.N. International Organization for Migration estimated there are almost 1.7 million immigrants in the country.

Far-right presidential candidate José Antonio Kast has expressed a desire to curb migration to Chile if elected, suggesting digging ditches by the Bolivian border to prevent migrants from crossing.

In November's presidential election, Kast got the largest number of votes but not enough to secure a win. He and his leftist rival Gabriel Boric will partake in a runoff election.

Many migrants looking to enter Chile from countries like Venezuela, Colombia and Bolivia worry that if Kast wins, they will be cut off from entering the country. They are treating Sunday's runoff as the deadline to arrive by.

"We have relatives here in Chile who told us that we had to go before Dec. 19, because if the one who won the first round (Kast) wins again, he will close all borders," Rayber Rodríguez, a Venezuelan migrant traveling with his wife and daughter, told the Associated Press.

Chile, border crossing, migrants
Over 25,000 migrants have crossed into Chile via the Atacama Desert this year, a dramatic increase from 16,500 last year. Above, migrants walk in a field after crossing into Chile from Bolivia, near Colchane, Chile, Friday, Dec. 10. Matias Delacroix/AP Photo

Tatiana Castro, a Colombian who also crossed into Chile through the desert, put it bluntly. "We had to cross right now for fear that they would send us back."

She said people "do not know how hard it is, that we have to go through many countries and across many borders where it is hard for us, we have to endure hunger... cold weather."

The border has been guarded for months by the police and the army, though migrants cross using different paths in the desert in plain sight. The border area was empty until a few years ago. Now it looks like the transit area of a train terminal.

Once in Chilean territory, migrants are not detained. Some keep walking to the closest city while others turn themselves in to authorities so they can start a process that might help them to regularize their immigration status.

Colchane, a Chilean town near the border with fewer than 1,600 inhabitants, mostly Indigenous Aymara, has seen a constant flow of migrants in recent months. Sometimes the migrants outnumber the local population.

"We can't take it anymore", said Nicolás Mamani Gómez, who wants Kast to win, so "no more immigrants will come."

Some of the migrants walk further after crossing the border and make it to the city of Iquique.

There, some of the migrants have been living in public parks and beaches. And not all the residents are happy. A few weeks ago, some locals attacked a camp where Venezuelans were staying and burned their belongings.

Virginia Carrasco, a 30 years-old Venezuelan, crossed the desert and entered into Chile with her three children—11 and 8 years old, and a baby of six months—looking for a better life.

Carrasco said she wants a better health care system for them.

"In Venezuela's hospitals you get nothing," she said, as she dragged a cart filled with suitcases, bags and backpacks. "There are people who have died because they cannot get medicine or doctors. I expect a better quality of life for my children in Chile, that's why I came here."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Chile, Bolivia, migrants
Many migrants are rushing to cross into Chile before the country's presidential runoff election Sunday, Dec. 19. Above, Venezuelan migrant Jose Rodriguez kisses his wife as they line up to board a government bus to Iquique, at a government camp after crossing into Chile from Bolivia, Chile, Friday, Dec. 10. Matias Delacroix/AP Photo

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