Border militarization against Venezuelans on the move in South America

By Venezuelan Voices

Photo credit: Taken from France 24’s site © EFE/ Andina. Armored units of the Peruvian Army move towards the border with Ecuador in support of the National Police to control migrants’ access in Tumbes (Peru).

The so-called “Lima Group”, integrated by center-right and right wing governments in Latin America which aligned themselves with the US stance on the Venezuelan crisis, has regularly issued statements touching upon the social and economic crises and the suffering of the Venezuelan people. Yet many of those governments have feed the xenophobic hatred against Venezuelan migrants and people in need of protection. In the recent past, Colombian president Duque tried to exclude Venezuelans from the COVID-19 vaccination efforts. The governments of Ecuador and Peru have blamed crime increase rates on Venezuelans, with Ecuadorian president, Lenin Moreno, even inciting lynching mobs to attack Venezuelans.

This year, a new and worrisome development is the deployment of military forces to crack down on Venezuelan migrants and people in need of protection across the continent.

On January 12, Chilean President, Sebastian Piñera, modified decree 265 signed by him in 2019, expanding the role of the Armed Forces to join civilian and police authorities in the combat against migrant smuggling and human trafficking through unauthorized border crossings in the Northern frontier. They were already authorized to combat drug trafficking and organized crime. According to Piñera’s press office, the number of people sentenced for migrant smuggling and human trafficking increased around 25% in 2019-2020.

In fact, the move came after Chile proposed a new immigration law in December 2020, introduced by Piñera’s team already in 2013 but dormant until now. The law has been presented by Piñera as more progressive than its 1975 predecessor, created under Pinochet’s dictatorship with a tough approach towards immigration. However, according to Chilean lawyer and Amnesty International’s activist, Patricio Trincado, this new law retains a tough spirit on immigration.

For example, those who entered Chile on temporary visitor’s visas will find it hard to change their migratory status. Chile is the 3rd country with the highest number of Venezuelan migrants and refugees in the region (almost half a million) and since June 2019, despite self proclaimed “interim president” Guaido’s claims of support from members of the Lima Group like Chile, Venezuelans are required to have visas to access the country. Therefore, if Venezuelans in Chile cannot change their migratory status without leaving the country, irregularity will increase, contradicting the spirit of the law proclaimed by Piñera.

As the pandemic goes on, Venezuelans will now arrive to militarized borders lacking humanitarian or other types of visa, as they cannot access Chilean consulates or have their requests delayed due to quarantine measures. Since their situation deteriorates, the lack of visa will not prevent them from moving and smugglers and traffickers will continue to prey on them, promising access through unauthorized border crossing points (now their only option), putting them at risk of being injured, abused, trafficked, killed, as well as prosecuted or expelled by Armed Forces controlling these areas.

The new Chilean law also created the figure of “assisted return” for unaccompanied foreign children and teenagers, leaving the details of this procedure to be determined by regulation, so the government in power could decide how to proceed. A requirement to the Constitutional Court against several articles of this new law – including this one – was presented by 41 Congress members who belong to Frente Amplio, the Socialist and the Communist parties on December 15, 2020. On January 29, the Court declared 6 articles unconstitutional. On this particular figure of “assisted return”, it established that the article had to be entirely eliminated as it did not comply with national or international standards for unaccompanied children and teenagers in general, as well as for those in migratory processes.

Ale Olivares, Anadolu Agency. Santiago, Chile – December 17, 2020: Venezuelan and Haitian migrants in the streets of Santiago de Chile, during International Migrants Day

Peru also militarized its borders with Ecuador in a coordinated manner on January 26, 2021. The aim declared by the military is to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus by preventing migrants crossing through unauthorized border areas. They moved 50 trucks, armored and patrol vehicles and over 1,200 military personnel, alarming the local populations, because the images evoke wartimes rather that migration control. Ecuador deployed 200 military personnel and 20 Hummers to its border with Peru.

© Teleamazonas Ecuador

Peru’s military has a long history of human rights abuses and is not trained to deal with massive migration through human rights and gender approaches. In Tumbes, on the border with Ecuador, the Peruvian army fired shots into the air to disperse a group of migrants, including children. If the government is not pressured into retreating from its repressive strategy, aggressions against migrants and people on the move in need of protection could escalate, creating terrible consequences. The Peruvian government tries to deflect criticism and widespread discontent from its mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and its social and economic consequences, turning Venezuelan migrants, refugees and asylum seekers into a convenient scapegoat.

Colombia is also blocking access from Venezuela in some borders. On January 26, the Army took control of the Arauca river and videos show boats and canoes being sunk by them in this area. At the bus station, the police allow only Venezuelans with valid documentation and as buses were prevented from crossing for several hours, migrants started walking, trying to find irregular crossing points known as trochas to continue their journeys, due to the lack of regular access points and adequate conditions to bear the wait imposed by the authorities.

Colombia still suffers from state and paramilitary violence. Over half of Colombia’s coca is grown in the departments of Nariño in the border with Ecuador, and Norte de Santander in the border with Venezuela. On January 30, Colombia registered its 8th massacre of 2021 in Norte de Santander, at the hands of the neo-paramilitary group known as Autodefensas Gaitanistas. During 2020, Colombia recorded at least 91 massacres. Venezuelan migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are also at risk of becoming victims, since paramilitary armed groups take advantage of the quarantine measures to make territorial advances while the state deploys its forces on migrant crossings instead.

Venezuelans on the move are being targeted by the governments that claim to support the US-backed opposition, while Guaido and his representatives are silently complicit, at a time when migration flows are expected to increase despite the pandemic situation, following the December 6, 2020 elections in Venezuela and the ease of the borders that happened over the Christmas holidays.

As refugee law expert, James Hathaway, said on Twitter on January 28 referring to migrant and asylum seekers crossing into the US, “all border crossing to seek asylum is, by definition, legal under treaties the US has signed”. The same reminder must be given to Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and others in the region, as they are part of the 1951 Refugee Convention, its 1967 Protocol and have not just participated in the 1984 Cartagena discussions, where an expanded definition of who constitutes a refugee was created, in order to adapt the 1951 one to the Latin American context, but they have also adopted this expanded definition within their national legislations.

The COVID-19 pandemic cannot be used as an excuse to violate the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, especially as the situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate and Maduro stigmatized those returning to the country since 2020, labeling them as “biological weapons”, offering no support for them in this cruel situation.

In an almost hopeless situation, positive experiences in the form of spontaneous solidarity are still found across the continent, with regular Colombians, Ecuadorians, Peruvians and Chileans providing help, food and shelter to the Venezuelan pariahs. In Colombia, Duque had to reverse his stance against vaccinating Venezuelans, following the outcry of the Colombian public opinion. Solidarity can also defeat the militarized and criminalizing policies currently put in place by those governments.

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