Crossing a desert on foot with a newborn baby
A young migrant mother makes a perilous journey across the Andean desert in search of a better life for her children.
COLCHANE, Chile – “My feet were in a terrible state when I arrived,” says Andrelis as she lowers her facemask, catching her breath. “I couldn't walk anymore because of the cold. I felt like my feet were inside two buckets of ice water.”
Andrelis, 21, is resting at a camp in Colchane, Chile, near the border with Bolivia, having traveled with her partner and two young children from their home in Venezuela. Even breathing can be difficult in the snowy Andes mountain range, thousands of metres above sea-level. The camp – made up of a dozen or so tents that allow migrants to rest and access basic services – provides some welcome relief amid the arid landscape, where wild llamas wander between mountains and volcanoes.
Andrelis gently rocks her one-month-old son Damián as she waits patiently for her turn to enter the infirmary at the camp. She doesn’t plan to stay in Colchane for long; no one stays more than a couple of days before continuing their journey. But she is happy to take a break from an arduous journey that has left her with a sunburned face and blisters on her feet.
“The journey was horrible. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, much less [someone] with small children,” Andrelis says.
An arid journey
Andrelis grew up in Zulia State in northwest Venezuela. Together with her partner, Renny, and their four-year-old son Jonás, Andrelis left Venezuela and traveled through five countries before reaching the arid region that connects Colchane and Pisiga, in Bolivia.
“We had to backpack, we had to cross trails, we had to walk, go cold and hungry,” she says. “I don’t want my children to go through the same thing I went through. I want them to be better than me – professionals – and to be well.”
The path to Colchane is a well-trodden one, with an average of 155 migrants, mostly from Venezuela, making the journey by foot each day in 2021. Those trying to reach the town, where around 1,600 people live with only intermittent electricity, without a sewage system or easy access to safe drinking water, contend with the scorching sun, intense winds and temperatures that dip below freezing at night.
The reception centre that awaits those arriving in Colchane, is supported by UNICEF and partner agencies and serves an average of 30 children and adolescents per day. The centre provides psychosocial support as well as recreational activities for younger children. Staff there also provide basic medical assistance for those who need it – many who arrive are suffering from severe colds, dehydration or hypothermia – as well as warm clothing, water, food, and information for migrant families continuing their journeys.
“The migrants who arrive here have had long journeys and many of them traversed several countries, sometimes over the course of several years,” says UNICEF Chile Deputy Representative Glayson Dos Santos. “We’ve encountered children who have been out of school for five years because they don’t have the required documents…They arrive with a huge gap in key areas of life development, health, nutrition, and education. There are a lot of vulnerabilities.”
Migrant families are exposed to countless risks during their journeys, including the possibility of running out of food or water. The risks can be particularly acute for mothers travelling with small children. Andrelis had to take her newborn baby, Damian, to a hospital in Peru just a few weeks after he was born after he contracted a severe cold.
“We had to come by mula (truck) to Peru. I almost lost my baby,” she says. “But in Lima I received good care.” Damian recovered, but soon after the family resumed their journey, he started suffering from severe stomach pain and diarrhea that required treatment in Colchane.
Despite the risks they face, the number of migrants to Chile more than doubled between 2020 and 2021, while the number of children and adolescents tripled. For those arriving in Colchane, the journey will continue with a four-hour bus ride to a second UNICEF-supported assistance centre, operated by the Chilean government, in the coastal city of Iquique. From there, many migrants hope to travel to the capital, Santiago, which hosts more than 60 per cent of the country's migrant population.
Andrelis can’t hide her excitement over the prospect of soon being reunited with her mother and sister, who are already in Chile. For the past three years, her mother has been working in the city of Rancagua, 2,000 kilometres south of Colchane, as a seasonal employee and in a restaurant.
The feelings of excitement are mutual judging by the phone conversation Andrelis is having with her mother, who is looking forward to meeting her new grandson and to hug family members she has long only been able to see in occasional video calls. “You’ll be here soon with mommy," she says.