COVID impasse: Bolivian and Peruvian migrants trapped at Chilean border

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - More than a thousand mainly Bolivian migrants are stranded near Chile’s northern border after informal labor sources in their host country dried up but they were unable to return home because of shutdowns to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, refugee groups and both governments have confirmed.

The migrants have been gathering for the past two weeks after Bolivia progressively tightened its border after allowing some returnees into quarantine within the country.

Now, around 800 people are being housed in a disused school in the northern Chilean city of Iquique, while another 300 are waiting in a bus station in Antofagasta, another major city, Chilean authorities and refugee groups say, after several thwarted attempts to cross. Most are Bolivians, but some Peruvians are also seeking to return home.

Refugee groups say 250 more people are sleeping outside the Bolivian consulate in Iquique, and that more people are heading north from the Chilean capital Santiago.

On Wednesday the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet urged countries in Latin America to open their borders to their own nationals.

“Under international law, everyone has the right to return to their home country – even during a pandemic,” she said.

Bolivia’s foreign ministry told Reuters on Thursday it would be making an announcement “in the coming hours” about the situation.

Chile’s foreign minister Teodoro Ribera said later on Thursday that Bolivia had agreed to reopen its border to some returnees on Saturday and Sunday.

He said the two countries had negotiated that the migrants’ time in the care of the Chilean authorities in Iquique and Antofagasta could be counted as quarantine and discounted from time they would spend under observation on the other side of the border before returning to their homes.

He said he hoped the measure “would ensure that people entering Bolivia are not carrying coronavirus or risk generating a larger outbreak in Bolivian territory,” he said in a statement sent to media.

Hector Pujols, president of Chile’s National Migrants Coordination Group, said before the development that it had appealed to the World Trade Organization to intervene since it has responsibility for migrant labor.

“Without work or a means to live, people prefer to go back to their own countries but they can’t do that either now, so it’s a Catch-22 situation,” he said.

Jorge Corpus, a Bolivian man waiting in Antofagasta, told local television: “It makes you feel very angry and impotent. It’s beginning to look like we’re never going to see our families or get back to Bolivia. We don’t have any money left or anything to live on.”

Reporting by Aislinn Laing; additional reporting by Danny Ramos; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Daniel Wallis