Jhonny, 26, is living with his pregnant wife, Cribsel, 19, with their two children at a migrant reception center in Chile. The 3,700m elevation and frigid climatic conditions have noticeably taken their toll on this young family of four. They are sunburnt and gasping for breath.
The family traveled from Bolivia to Chile for five hours, but this was only the final leg of a two-month odyssey, covering some 5,000 kilometers on foot and five border crossings, while dodging dangerous criminal groups.
“It was the first time we’ve experienced cold weather. This part was the toughest,” says Jhonny, with cleft lips and cracked feet. “We weren’t prepared with winter coats or blankets.”
He had been a construction worker in Venezuela, but he lost his job and covering the basic necessities of his family became impossible. They decided to leave their hometown of Aragua with just $450 and a backpack of essentials, to venture the long hike through the Andean highlands, first Colombia, and later Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, spending most of the year roughing it up. street sleep. Their journey.
Proud desert conditions and freezing temperatures
Their story is far from an isolated case. Often, exhausted people in small groups travel along one of the most extensive migration routes in the world, mainly on foot at periodic intervals by bus, taxi and other means of transport.
For Venezuelans traveling to Chile, the final hurdle is the grueling Atacama Desert, the driest and highest plateau in the world at nearly 4,000 meters above sea level and with temperatures dropping below minus 10 degrees Celsius.
Many migrants and refugees travel irregularly on these routes and face dangers such as theft and the risk of sexual exploitation and abuse by criminal groups. Seven people are reported to have died since early 2022, either from exposure to extreme conditions or from health complications resulting from pre-existing medical conditions exacerbated by the inhospitable terrain of the Atacama Desert.
‘Our goal is to work and do something constructive’
Near the Chilean city of Colchane, and crossing the common border with Bolivia at dawn, Jhonny’s family, along with other migrants, are relieved to find much-needed life-saving humanitarian aid. They arrive hungry and suffer from hypothermia, dehydration and altitude sickness.
By July, Chilean authorities estimated that about 127,000 migrants had entered Chile via irregular crossings by 2022. Many pass through Colchane, a small village of less than 500 inhabitants, 85 percent of whom are indigenous. They are often driven by a desire to reunite with their relatives and to contribute to host communities.
“Our goal is to work and do something constructive. I want people to see me as a Venezuelan who has something positive to offer. This will help change the perception they have of us,” adds Jhonny.
‘We slept under a blanket covered in ice’
After several difficult months since first arriving in Chile, Francisco and his family have had to deal with cold temperatures on the streets of the city of Iquique, a drastic difference from the tropical conditions in their hometown. The family of five is now housed in temporary shelter funded and managed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
“We slept under a blanket covered in ice and hugged each other for warmth. We had to use our bags as pillows to prevent theft during the night.”
Maria, 18, has finally achieved some degree of stability after giving birth to a healthy baby boy in Chile.
She now has a home in Iquique and is one of hundreds to receive humanitarian aid from IOM in the form of cash vouchers, hundreds of which have been distributed to vulnerable families to provide them with the means to buy food, hygiene products and warm clothing.
Dreaming to return home one day
Janeth Perez, 36, never imagined that one day she would have to leave her beloved home. Back in her native Venezuela, she was a high school math and physics teacher, but the financial situation forced her to leave her life and profession behind. She started the long road to Chile, alone and hoping to find a new beginning.
After an arduous 11-day bus journey, she recently arrived in Chile and is determined to head to the port city of Valparaiso, about 2,000 kilometers south of the Bolivian-Chilean border, to reunite with her sister and a start new life working at a supermarket.
Despite all these challenges, Janeth and many others are grateful for the opportunity to work and support their families, both in Chile and at home in Venezuela. She dreams of regularizing her status, validating her university degree and working as a teacher, her passion.
“The future I envision is one where I can teach again to earn enough money to buy a house and go back home with my son and mother to live together in peace.”