Latin American and Caribbean governments have used the migration phenomenon to implement aporophobic and xenophobic practices, which have already proved unsuccessful in the US.

By: Zhandra Flores

Governments’ response to migrants in a context of growing stigmatisation of outsiders, who are often held responsible for local social ills – or at least for aggravating them – has become a justification for passing anti-immigration laws, implementing questionable security policies and militarising their borders to stop illegal flows.

The argument is that foreigners, mostly poor and coming from countries in the global South, are responsible for the increase in crime.

This apparent causality is often echoed by the media, governments and political leaders, despite the fact that there is currently no data to prove it, something that has been insistently denounced by various human rights organisations, including Amnesty International.

Latin America is no stranger to these aporophobic doctrines that have been applied in the global North for several decades, despite the fact that international migrants represent barely 2.3% of the population, that is, around 14 million, according to the most recent figures from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Countries such as Peru, Chile, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Guatemala and Colombia report a deterioration in their levels of citizen security, which they often blame on organised crime gangs of foreign origin or irregular migrants.

Discrimination against Venezuelans

The number of Venezuelans abroad is difficult to determine precisely. Some data, from agencies such as the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), are controversial and differ from the estimates of Nicolás Maduro’s government.

Caracas has denounced that the estimate given by international organisations and governments on the number of Venezuelans abroad has been deliberately inflated for political reasons. Foreign minister Yván Gil has criticised the “manipulation of figures related to human mobility, with the aim of capturing financial resources that are not subject to accountability or auditing”.

Be that as it may, many of the countries hosting Venezuelans have at some point appealed to a discourse that criminalises migration and have announced or adopted discriminatory security measures against them.

Blaming in Bogotá

In Colombia, where UNHCR estimates that some 1.7 million Venezuelans reside, the mayor of Bogotá, Claudia López, has blamed them on numerous occasions for crimes in the capital.

The latest episode occurred on 28 June, when the mayor claimed that 15 Venezuelans detained in an operation belonged to the Aragua Train, a criminal gang that emerged in central Venezuela. The allegation was denied by the government of President Nicolás Maduro, but López did not retract it.

In November 2020, López accused Venezuelans of ‘making life miserable’ for Bogotanos, and in her defence she replied that ‘there is a 20 % participation of Venezuelans in the robberies’, although she did not offer details of the origin of the figure, nor did she present any documentation to back it up.

In August 2021, she again lashed out at Venezuelan migrants, when she willed the creation of a special command to “combat criminal gangs that involve the migrant population”.

The measure was not implemented, but her words are not innocuous. A special commission of the Venezuelan National Assembly to investigate crimes perpetrated against Venezuelan migrants in the last decade documented 4,918 murders up to August 2022, although neither the totals by country nor the actions of local authorities in each case have been made public.

Migrants: scapegoat in Chile

Chile’s National Institute of Statistics reports that at the end of 2021, around 1.48 million people of foreign origin resided in the country, of which nationals from Venezuela, Peru, Haiti, Colombia and Bolivia represent the largest groups. Of these, just over a third are Venezuelans.

Official data indicate that foreigners represent 8.4% of the population. However, these estimates are partial, as the accounts only include those who have processed their residence permits.

Last October, in a combined mix of claims about border control, migration regularisation and deteriorating security levels, President Gabriel Boric urged migrants residing on Chilean soil without the documents required by law to regularise their situation, otherwise they would have to leave.

“To those who are in an irregular situation: either they regularise or they leave. And those who commit crimes directly have to leave, here there is no one who is going to be above the law,” he said in a speech, in which he stressed that he could not allow “crime” to take over the country.

Months later, the president toned down his remarks and urged the Chilean people not to confuse “all migrants with criminals”, although he made the comment in the context of the announcement of new measures to curb migration flows through illegal channels and in the midst of what he described as a “security crisis” resulting from the murder of three law enforcement officers in a short period of time.

In addition – and in coordination with the government of Dina Boluarte in Peru – Chile decided in March to militarise the common border. Both presidents maintained that the aim was to preserve territorial control and curb irregular migration.

The decision led to a crisis in which some 300 people, mainly Venezuelans, were trapped in no man’s land because they were prevented from crossing at the Tacna border post (Peru) and could not return to Chilean territory.

In April 2023, the Chilean attorney general, Ángel Valencia, tacitly equated migrants and criminals by stating that according to data from the North Central Prosecutor’s Office in Santiago, “between 35% and 40% of detainees every day are of foreign nationality”.

Likewise, in the framework of the presentation of his annual account, Boric again pointed to the issue of migration and stressed that his administration has made significant progress “in retaking control of the northern border” with the participation of the Armed Forces.

“In this we have to be clear, without secure borders there is no state, and our borders in the north had seriously collapsed,” he said, referring to the irregular migrant settlements in the Arica region.

The great forgotten ones

In contrast to the media visibility that migrants from Venezuela have gained in the last five years, their counterparts from Haiti barely appear in the headlines.

The Dominican Republic’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported in 2020 that there were “around half a million […] undocumented Haitian migrants […], most of them working in construction, agriculture and domestic service”.

The response of President Luis Abinader’s government has been to erect a wall along the 380 kilometres of the common border, replicating the policy of fencing off undesirable neighbours, for whatever reason.

Meanwhile, the Haitian Repatriates and Refugees Support Group claims that in 2022 alone, Santo Domingo deported 160,000 Haitians, of whom 60,000 went to prison before being expelled.

For his part, the Dominican mayor of Dajabón, Santiago Rivero, told France24 that “the wall also has the advantage that it will prevent the trafficking of motorbikes and vehicles, and the issue of drug trafficking”, while stressing that it was not “discriminatory” and that it was part of the right of each country “to take care of its border”. “The US has done it, why can’t we?” he stressed.

The mistreatment of Haitian migrants and excessive migration controls for Haitian nationals are not exclusive to the Dominican Republic.

The United Nations denounced last April that these practices, which are widespread throughout the American continent, have an undeniably racist component.

In peculiarity, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on American countries to “put an end to the collective expulsions” of migrants of Haitian origin and to take concrete measures to protect them.

Militarisation and migrant business

Perhaps unsuspectingly, the mayor of Dajabón focused on a key point: Latin American and Caribbean countries have made the policy based on fences, legal obstacles, walls, militarisation and criminalisation of migration implemented by the US their model to follow.

However, as InSight Crime warns in a recent report, these measures “have created an increasingly lucrative black market for human smuggling”, but have not stemmed arrivals at the border.

Estimates based on official US data suggest that the migration business will be worth at least $12 billion by 2022, if one considers that at least 1.2 million migrants paid about $10,000 to smugglers to cross to the other side of the wall.

For its part, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned in early 2021 that increased border controls and the use of public force to deal with migrants was not a solution and instead exposed them to organised crime networks.

In addition, the ‘safe third country’ policy advanced by the White House, which included agreements with El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to apply for asylum from Central America without making the journey to the US, has also failed to deliver the promised results.

Encouraged by inaccurate information, many migrants have embarked on long treks to Mexico only to encounter the same thing that would await them in the north: a highly militarised border.

In the meantime, the receiving states are asserting the right to defend their territory from threats to their security, a category into which poor migrants have increasingly fallen.

The proven failure of this policy has not discouraged migration, but it has opened the way for criminal organisations to profit from the desperation of millions of people who, year after year, take increasingly dangerous paths in the hope of finding a better life outside the land of their birth.

The original article can be found at the following link: