ROME – On Tuesday, the Catholic Church in Chile will unveil a documentary on the country’s migration crisis in the hopes of garnering support for the thousands of people arriving in the country fleeing violence and persecution.
Father Jaime Torconal, vicar of the Archdiocese of Santiago’s social ministry, said Chile typically experiences “small migratory movements. We had small groups from Peru or Colombia, and some refugee groups from Yugoslavia, Palestine, Syria, and Afghanistan. It was such a small amount that there was no conscience in Chile of what migration means.”
However, 10 years ago things changed, he said, and Chile began seeing large groups of migrants arriving from all over Latin America, particularly Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Venezuela.
Many of those who arrive, the priest told Crux in a telephone interview, do so after spending three to five years wandering around the continent.
Esperanza sin fronteras, (Hope without Borders) will be launched May 18 in Santiago’s Centro Cultural La Moneda, as well as being streamed around the world. At the same time, several national and international humanitarian aid organizations will announce a “working table” that will seek to find solutions for the tens of thousands of migrants and refugees who are currently staying in Chile without proper documentation, many of them living on the streets.
According to the National Migration Service, Chile has close to 1.5 million foreigners, a third of whom are Venezuelans who arrived in the last decade. Today, 350 migrants enter Chile every day. Many others die making the journey, with seven confirmed deaths in the first three months of 2022.
Collecting the testimony of several migrants and those who help them, the documentary presents the stories of those who say they are fleeing dictatorship, economic and political violence, as well as hunger and crime in their home countries. They describe having been assaulted and robbed, and they are often at the mercy of organized criminal organizations that profit from their desperation.
“Many children were born while their parents were trying to reach Chile; they have lived in a tent their entire lives,” Torconal said. “How do you get those children, for instance, to go to school?”
Many migrants try to enter the country from the north, attempting to reach cities such as Iquique or Copiapó, in the Atacama desert, which have freezing temperatures in the winter.
“They spend their lives in makeshift shelters, a family covered by a blanket,” Torconal said. “They have no housing, no food, no access to education nor healthcare. Chile has no reception project, and the first thing people look for is to ensure their own safety, leading many to believe that crime rates increase because migrants come,” he said.
“The first thing to do is to make the drama of those fleeing their countries visible, so that people understand that migrants do not come for tourism, but because they have been expelled from their countries,” Torconal said. “Their right to stay in their homeland has been violated.”
Chileans don’t realize the suffering these people have gone through before arriving in northern Chile, some 1,000 miles from Santiago, the final destination for most. But those who do make it out of the desert and into the cities end up living in a tent in a town square or on the sidewalk, most finding it impossible to adapt to life in Chile.
According to Torconal, in order to work in the country one needs a residence permit, which most times is not possible to get without a job: “It is as if we wanted to have eggs, but refused to have chickens.”
For Torconal, who spent three months in the deserts with five members of the archdiocesan social ministry office at the request of the United Nations’ migrants and refugees office, it is necessary to make the suffering of these people visible so that “we can generate the conversion Pope Francis asks for: to move from the idea that migrants are a problem to realizing that they are the solution to our selfishness.”
Torconal acknowledged that there is some truth that the increase of migrants brings an increase in crime, but not because they are criminals: “When you are starving, living in the streets with your children, surviving on what you get begging, committing a petty crime such as pickpocketing is an easy transition.”
“But if there was a catastrophe in Chile and we had to go to Argentina, Peru or Bolivia, we would all go,” he said. “Why are we scandalized? We would all go: The wheat with the tares.”
He said Chile needs to create welcoming programs to help integrate migrants into Chile with the involvement of civil authorities, NGOs, and the private sector.
“The reality is that migrants are being subjected to an inhumane situation to see if they will leave,” he said. “But we must open our eyes and recognize that they are already here, and if the situation in Venezuela does not change diametrically, they will not be able to return. What are they going to return to? Starvation?”
The government, he said, is behaving like an ostrich with its head in the sand, hoping the problem will solve itself.
Though once one of Chile’s most influential institutions, the Catholic Church in recent years has lost much credibility due to the ongoing clerical sexual abuse crisis, which includes several bishops and some of the country’s most prominent priests. One of these was Jesuit Father Felipe Berrios, who spent the last seven years living in the La Chimba camp for migrants in the north of the country, and was accused by a woman of abusing her from the age of 12 until she was 17.
“In all sincerity, when have we had great prestige as a church? When Peter denied Jesus? When Judas sold him?” Torconal said.
“I have an immense pain for what is happening in the church in Chile: Not for us, but for the victims. And if we have been victimizers, we have to be punished; it is evident.”
“I have to be honest: We are sinners, society has to realize this,” he said. “And this makes us lose a share of power. But what does power have to do with the Gospel? I believe it has much more to do with the power of poverty. The means to help, God willing, will be there.”