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October 22, 2014
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Chile, land of immigrants

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.
By Patricio Navia
For the Herald

Rapid growth, ease of entry fuels migration wave

NEW YORK — There is probably no better indicator of prosperity for a country than the number of immigrants that arrive in search of jobs and opportunities. After almost two centuries of little action on the that front, Chile has seen its immigrant population increase by more than 200 percent over the past 12 years. In 2002, one in every 125 residents of Chile was born abroad — the figure in 2014 has climbed to one in every 44.

As the country consolidates its position as the most developed nation in Latin America, nationals from elsewhere in the region are increasingly making Chile their new home.

Immigration is driven by two factors. People choose to leave their country when they see diminishing opportunities for progress. Sometimes, military or social conflict, and political prosecution, also induce people to leave their homeland. However, there is also another side to the equation — people migrate when they find countries that offer better opportunities. For several decades, millions of Mexicans and Central Americans have migrated to the United States looking for better opportunities. With an economy 3.4 times bigger, measured in per capita power purchasing parity (GDP PPP), the United States was, and still is, an attractive destination for many people who managed to cross the border.

On a much smaller scale, Argentina was, for a long time, a favourite destination for people from neighbouring South American countries — especially from Bolivia, Paraguay and Chile. Second only to Brazil, Argentina was the largest South American economy and experienced prolonged periods of economic growth during the 20th century. Unlike Brazil, where language barriers had a dissuasive effect on many South Americans looking for a new country, every time Argentina went through a period of rapid growth, migrants from other Spanish-speaking countries in the region settled there. However, as inequality between the countries of Latin American has risen over the past 30 years, migrations patterns have also changed.

Today, Chile stands as the most developed country in Latin America, with a GDP per capita (PPP) of around US$20,000, just above Argentina’s US$19,000. As it has experienced a smoother ride than its neighbour, Chile has become the destination of choice for many South American immigrants. Close to eight percent of those in Chile come from Bolivia, a country with a GDP per capita (PPP) of US$5,364. Chile’s per capita GDP is 3.6 times that of Bolivia, a larger difference than the GDP per capita gap between the US and Mexico (3.4 times).

Rapid economic growth and ease of entry have made Chile an attractive destination for immigrants.

In 2002, there were 184,464 foreign legal residents, 0.8 percent of the national population. In 2014, the number has risen to 441,529 (2.3 percent). This three-fold increase ranks among the fastest growing immigrant population in the world for countries with more than 10 million inhabitants.

Because the starting point was so low, the increase can be misinterpreted. In Argentina, for example, the foreign-born population in 2002 accounted for 5.1 percent of the national population. In 2014, the figure decreased to 4.5 percent. Thus, even though it has experienced a downward trend, Argentina’s foreign-born citizens still constitutes a bigger share of the national population than Chile’s.

Other Latin American countries have also seen an increase in its foreign-born population. Ecuador has seen its immigrant population soar from 0.8 percent in 2002 to 2.3 percent in 2014, the same as Chile. However, more than half of them are children of Ecuadoreans who migrated to Europe in the 1990s and 2000s and have returned since the 2008 economic crisis.

The case of Chile is also unique as a growing number of immigrants are coming from beyond neighbouring countries. Six out of ten immigrants in Chile are from neighbouring countries Peru (37.8 percent), Argentina (15 percent) and Bolivia (7.7 percent). Among Chile’s non-neighbouring countries, the most immigrants come from Ecuador (5.2 percent), Colombia (5.1 percent) and Brazil (2.9 percent). The presence of Colombians has captured media attention as immigrants from that country have risen by more than 500 percent, from less than 5,000 immigrants in 2002 to close to 25,000 today.

The ease of entry and lack of migratory barriers, economic opportunities — including a vibrant job market in the past four years — a competitive exchange rate (which increases the value of remittances sent back home) and very low inflation have transformed Santiago, Chile’s capital, and several cities in the mining-intensive north into immigration hubs.

As a result of its economic success, Chile is now facing some of the problems that countries with a longer history of immigration have known for decades. Integrating immigrants into society and preventing the formation of ghettos is a new challenge. Though the government has signalled its will to tackle the issue, the immigrant population is growing faster than the reach of government programmes.

As many foreigners come to their country, looking for their own version of the American Dream, Chileans should be proud of what they have accomplished. Yet, they will also need to be prepared to face some of the negative consequences that a growing immigrant population inevitably generates. When countries develop, they leave behind the nightmares of underdevelopment, but begin to face the challenges of development.

@patricionavia

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