UNICEF supports the dreams of children who cross the desert to reach Chile
Migrant families receive assistance in the First Reception Centers upon arrival in Chile. With the support of UNICEF, migrant children and adolescents are cared for and guided about their rights.
Iquique/Colchane, Chile - Upon stepping on Chilean soil, a support network is deployed to assist migrant children and their families. They also receive guidance about their rights and opportunities in the country.
Every day, 155 migrants cross the Andean plateau and the mountain trails on foot to arrive in Chile. Most of them are from Venezuela. There are already 450,000 Venezuelans in the country; more than half are women, children and adolescents. Venezuelans cross South America in a 4,700-kilometer journey exposed to many dangers; the majority face the last stretch on foot, without access to water, food, or shelter.
In Colchane, on one of the northern borders of the country, the Chilean government set up a temporary camp, where migrants can spend the night, eat, wash and gather strength to continue their journey. There, UNICEF and its partners provide humanitarian support to children and adolescents in the First Reception Center located inside the shelter.
“The passage of the trail was pure cold water, like ice (...) We threw away all the clothes trying to save my daughter's life,” recalls Jennifer Montilla (32), who walks with difficulty due to her advanced pregnancy.
Together with three of his children, she left her hometown of Barinas (Venezuela) at the beginning of 2021, to finally cross the Andean trails between Bolivia and Chile a year later. The family walked at night and groped through the swamps so as not to be seen by the police, her daughter Yannelis (13) almost died of hypothermia due to the low temperatures. Jennifer's desperate screams alerted the police, who ran to rescue the girl and took her to the Temporary Device in the Chilean border town of Colchane. In this government-run camp, they received medical attention, shelter, and food for two days. From there, they were transferred by bus to the Lobito Transitory Device, a shelter installed in the port city of Iquique, Tarapacá region, 273 kilometers from the border that they barely managed to cross.
Andrelis Álvarez (21) receives assistance in the infirmary that works within the Colchane Temporary Device, a shelter for migrants managed by the Chilean government and supported by UNICEF. In one of the tents installed in the middle of the Andean desert, Andrelis and his family are checked by health personnel after a long journey on foot. The young Venezuelan arrived the day before with her children and her partner. The youngest, only one month old, was unexpectedly born in Lima (Peru) as a result of the arduous journey. Already in Chile, and still in pain from the recent cesarean section, Andrelis is worried about the health of her children and hopes to be soon reunited with her mother, who has lived in the city of Rancagua for the last three years.
Upon learning of her pregnancy, Andrelis left Zulia State (Venezuela), determined to find opportunities in another country. Despite the sadness, she sold her childhood home and ventured south with her partner Renny and their son Jonas. Andrelis negotiated swamps and dangerous ravines in the desert.
“Wherever we have to go, we are going to go. Even if it hurts, whatever we do. Everything for the well-being of them (her children)”, she asserts stoically, with her face and lips sunburned, and her feet injured by that last stretch that she had to do barefoot.
A nurse carefully checks Damian, the smallest migrant in the Colchane camp, located next to the border control. His brother, Jonas, rubs his belly and complains of pain. After going through the trails, Jonas feels under the weather and doesn't want to eat, he's exhausted. In this medical device, the staff gives priority to about 40 girls and boys who arrive each day. Many of them have respiratory diseases, dehydration and malnutrition. There they also look for cases of COVID-19, in the midst of a pandemic that affected the transit of migrants and tightened restrictions between countries.
Yannelis has never been to school, but she dreams of becoming a teacher. She took care of her younger brothers Yendri (10) and Bryan (3), during their journey through five South American countries to reach Chile, which they traversed backpacking on foot, or in trucks that offered them a lift. During the trip, Yannelis helped her mother to find food and shelter to survive the cold and hunger, regardless of the fatigue caused by those long journeys. She shares a tent with her family and ten other people in the Temporary Device set up on Lobito beach, in the port city of Iquique, to where they were transferred by bus from Colchane, two days after setting foot on Chilean soil.
“I would like to have friends at school, I would like to study; because if you don't study, you're never going to have anything in life,” she says with conviction, hoping to soon find a home in Chile and start a new life in an unknown country.
In addition to physical health problems, migrant children and adolescents develop traumas. To identify cases of vulnerabilities and lack of protection, a First Reception Center was set up within the Colchane shelter, which provides psychosocial care and is operated by the charity “Hogar de Cristo”, in partnership with UNICEF, UNHCR, IOM and the Undersecretary for Childhood. “There are more recreational, educational activities, to work on the entire psychosocial agenda due to all the stress generated. The space is also organized so that mothers can breastfeed their babies and we can provide information”, explains Glayson Dos Santos, deputy representative of UNICEF in Chile.
Juan Castillo (41) left Venezuela in search of work, months before his son Adriel (4) was born. His partner Ydania Yepez (36), his daughter Valeria (13) and Adriel, followed him three years later to Cali, Colombia, with the aim of finally settling in Chile. "The situation in Venezuela was difficult. Even so, I was afraid to come”, remembers Ydania. They entered Chile on foot through the Colchane plateau two months ago and, like all migrants who pass through there, were transferred two days later to the Temporary Device on the Lobito coast, conditioned for 250 people and managed by the Chilean government. From there, the family tries to save the little money they get from selling their things, while they dream about the idea of one day setting up an upholstery workshop in the capital Santiago and help provide work to other migrants.
Valeria likes to translate words from Spanish into English and practice math exercises. Since she left her school in Acarigua (Portuguesa state, northwestern Venezuela), she carries a dozen plush animals without stuffing, to save space and remember her life in Venezuela.
"I would like to study and make friends, because I don't really have many here," she says nostalgically.
Valeria aspires to be a lawyer and a veterinarian to help animals, but first, she would like to get up to speed with the school year she missed when she came here.
The young girl enjoys reading and anxiously waits for the teacher who visits the Lobito camp three times a week. He gave her the only book she has: "The Selfish Giant and Other Stories" by Oscar Wilde. In the camp the government offers educational activities in order to level learning and promote the integration of children and adolescents into the Chilean educational system.
Betzabé Padrón (25) waits in the Lobito camp for a shell fisher who offered to pay her to gather mussels, after crossing the Chilean-Bolivian border at night two months ago with her partner and two children, without a clear direction.
"I did not know where I was going, I heard that Venezuelans were going to Chile and I crossed wherever I saw them cross," she says, and revives the fear of being deported that stalked her the entire trip from her native Mérida (Venezuela) to Colchane.
Betzabé tried to sell candy on the streets, but the quarantines due to the pandemic complicated her plans. An old friend assured her that in Chile she would be better off and she did not hesitate to migrate again for the well-being of her family. Thus, Betzabé reached the Lobito Temporary Device, where migrants can access medical services and hygiene, food and take part in leisure activities.
Lisbeth's third child (20) is about to be born. “We hope that he will be healthy and grow up in Chile,” says with enthusiasm his father, Jiancarlo (36), a native of Guárico, Venezuela. The family first tried to settle in Peru, where they stayed until prices skyrocketed due to inflation, they say. Until today, the two girls do not know preschool and it is difficult for them to socialize, so they attend the Iquique First Reception Center every day, which offers daytime recreational activities to girls and boys between 3 and 14 years old, and informs migrants about their rights. The place is operated by the “Hogar de Cristo” charity, with the support of UNICEF, UNHCR, IOM and the Undersecretary for Children.
UNICEF supports the Chilean State's response in a coordinated manner, safeguarding the rights of children and adolescents in vulnerable situations in northern Chile, where the entry of migrants has increased exponentially.
There, UNICEF facilitates, together with other partner agencies, the delivery of food, shelter and hygiene supplies. It also provides psycho-social support, collaborates in referrals to state health and education networks, and supports the construction of a migration plan for families. At the school level, “UNICEF provides some type of education for girls and boys in emergency situations. We are working on a project to install a temporary educational space where some children can receive basic content, learn what a school is, help them transit”, explains Francisca Morales, Education Officer from UNICEF Chile.
UNICEF and its partners support the Temporary Devices and First Reception Centers for migrants who cross highways, deserts and mountains to reach Chile. It is an unpredictable journey that many do not survive. Along the journey and after arrival, the immediate needs of children and adolescents relate to access to psycho-social support, protection, health, water, hygiene and sanitation.. However, overcoming traumas, learning leveling and socialization are key objectives for their comprehensive development.
UNICEF supports the operation of child friendly spaces and furthers contact with local support networks. As important as physical health are the opportunities that allow families a future, so that they are able to contribute to the host communities.
A regional response
For 2023, UNICEF appeals for US$164.2 million to meet the increasingly complex humanitarian needs of 1.3 million children on the move, in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uruguay; and internally displaced and violence-affected children and communities in Colombia.
With the international donor financial contribution and in coordination with parnerts, UNICEF will help provide:
- access to primary healthcare;
- primary caregivers of children aged between 0-23 months with infant and young child feeding counselling;
- mental health and psychosocial support;
- access to formal or non-formal education, including early learning;
- access to safe and appropriate WASH facilities and hygiene services across learning facilities and safe spaces; and
- humanitarian cash transfers.