“Our greatest enemy right now is not the virus itself. It’s fear, rumours and stigma. Our greatest assets are facts, reason and solidarity.”
—WHO Director General, Opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19, 28 February 2020
“Solidarity is not in quarantine” – with these words, the Jesuit Migrant Service launched its campaign for COVID-19 emergency relief, distributing boxes of essential supplies and food to migrants and refugees living in Chile. Other advocacy groups have translated public health announcements into Haitian Creole, ensuring that this information is accessible for migrants in the country for whom Spanish is not their first language, and are demanding guaranteed access to healthcare and preventative programs for all, regardless of one’s legal status.
Such acts of solidarity are trying to prevent migrants – especially those without or with only precarious legal status – from falling through the cracks of government responses to the COVID-19 crisis. These acts are necessary because national governments throughout Latin America have turned a blind eye on the need of the most vulnerable migrants and refugees.
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The first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the region were reported in Brazil in late February. By mid-April, in less than two months, the virus had taken its toll and infected more than 80,000 in Latin America and the Caribbean. Governments responded by closing international borders and implementing strict quarantining and physical distancing measures.
The case of Chile illustrates how government responses to COVID-19 have had disproportionately devastating impacts on the country’s nearly 1,500,000 international migrants, and an estimated 300,000 migrants who have irregular legal status. On March 18, 2020, President Sebastien Piñera declared a 90-day “State of Constitutional Exception and Catastrophe” in Chile, providing expanded powers to the country’s armed forces to help enforce quarantines and physical distancing measures, and safeguard hospitals and supply chains to ensure that essential goods and services continue to be delivered across the country. He also shut down Chile’s borders – in Piñera’s words – "to avoid, through illegal immigration, bringing contamination to our country or infection of this virus that is attacking us”.
National governments throughout Latin America have turned a blind eye on the need of the most vulnerable migrants and refugees.
Because 75% of Chile’s roughly 44,000 confirmed COVID-19 infections (as of May 19, 2020) are in the Metropolitan Region of Santiago, a total quarantine was imposed on Santiago’s communas (municipalities) under which no one is allowed to leave their house, including for groceries, without an official permit. However, this permit can only be obtained after providing one’s ID card, address, or passport details online, which automatically excludes anyone with irregular legal status from access to food without fear of being apprehended by the authorities.
Similarly, the Chilean government has announced a “Solidarity Plan of Connectivity” which will subsidize internet and phone bills for qualifying low-income households. However, to be eligible, households must be registered with a national database affiliated with the Ministry of Social Development and Family, again excluding non-status families.
At a time when Latin America is experiencing the largest population movements in its modern history – stemming primarily from the ongoing political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela that has pushed over 4.5 million people to seek asylum mostly into neighbouring countries – government border shut-downs have wreaked havoc on vulnerable migrants and refugees throughout the region. With the bleak economic outlook in destination countries, the border closures deny many migrants return to their countries of origin. Hundreds of thousands of workers in the informal sector, whose livelihood has depended on their ability to cross borders freely, wonder how they will survive.
Solidarity cities are trying to offer relief in this situation. These cities have a decade-long tradition in Latin America. In 2004, the Mexico Declaration and Plan of Action established a regional framework of solidarity to provide durable protection to the Colombian refugees throughout the region.
Solidarity cities differ widely in terms of their local policies and practices, depending on each country’s and city’s social, historical, and geopolitical context. Nevertheless, they have in common that they typically include both bottom-up initiatives spearheaded by grassroots organizations, activists, and civil society actors as well as top-down policy initiatives enacted by municipalities.
In Santiago, the Municipality of Quilicura was recognized as a Solidarity City by the UNHCR in 2014 for its efforts to protect, integrate and celebrate its migrant population through an inclusive reception plan designed in alignment with the Mexico Plan of Action. Initiatives in Quilicura include: the creation of the Office of Migrants and Refugees, a formal space for migrants to access language-appropriate information about their rights, with dedicated resources to help resolve issues regarding equitable access to healthcare and education; a plan to ensure more stable housing through the creation of a municipal unit that can act as a guarantor for migrants seeking to rent; and an intermediary program intended to bridge the linguistic and cultural gaps between healthcare providers and migrants. Quilicura has also been working to share its policies and practices with other municipalities across Chile, and the replication of its model for solidarity is all the more necessary today.
While national governments tend to exclude vulnerable migrants and refugees in their efforts to combat COVID-19, the region’s solidarity cities include this group among the population that needs to be protected not only from the deadly virus but also from the consequences of the national responses to it.