Deadly Chile shantytown fire reflects struggle to handle migrant boom


  • World
  • Friday, 08 Dec 2023

The remains of a house that was destroyed in a fire killing a Venezuelan immigrant family is pictured in an informal settlement, in Valparaiso, Chile November 30, 2023. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

CORONEL/VALPARAISO, Chile (Reuters) - Yureima Carvajal smelled smoke while preparing dinner on a rainy Monday evening in Los Pirquenes, an informal settlement in southern Chile. She thought someone was burning trash until she heard children screaming.

"We ran over there and there weren't any firefighters, there weren't a lot of people and it was already burning so strong," Carvajal said. "There were neighbors trying to throw water on it but you couldn't put it out because it was already burnt."

Another Los Pirquenes resident, Daniel Gomez, said he ran through the community shouting until he found neighbors with a crowbar and a pickaxe. He doused himself in water and tried to break through the back of the house. The only entrance in the makeshift home was spewing flames.

"I heard noise in there and said, there are people in there," Gomez said. "I tried everything but we couldn't do anything."

The screams stopped before anyone could reach them. Fourteen people, including eight children, died in the fire, one of the most deadly to happen in Chile in decades. Those killed were all recent immigrants from Venezuela.

For many, the fire was symptomatic of a growing housing crisis in Chile. The government is struggling to provide adequate shelter for rising numbers of migrants, predominantly from Venezuela.

The number of families living in informal settlements in Chile reached 114,000 in 2023, a 142% spike since 2019, according to a survey by TECHO, a non-profit that studies housing issues in Latin America.

TECHO defines informal settlements as groups of eight or more families living on land without any formal ownership and lacking at least one basic service like water, electricity or sewage.

Chile's housing ministry says the number of migrants in these settlements has grown steadily, now totaling nearly 40% from just 1.5% in 2011.

In most cases, low incomes and the high cost of rent lock such families out of the traditional housing market.

In a statement sent to Reuters, Chile's housing ministry said it aims to reduce the number of families in informal settlements with a two-pronged approach - offering subsidies to some families, and formalizing some settlements by building lacking infrastructure.

It said the government was investing 300 million pesos ($343,500) to build solar lights, water tanks to fight fires and better roads in Los Pirquenes.

The center-left government of President Gabriel Boric has also said it wants to reduce the housing deficit by 40% by building 260,000 homes.

'BURNS LIKE CARDBOARD'

The week after the Los Pirquenes fire, another fire killed two children in El Esfuerzo, an informal settlement in Valparaiso, a coastal city that has become a magnet for migrants.

Yajaira Salazar, an El Esfuerzo resident and furniture-maker who arrived in Chile eight years ago from Venezuela, said she had tried to help to put out the fire, without success.

"I think that house burned down in five minutes," she said.

Salazar says El Esfuerzo was built just a few years ago and there is no running water or electricity, making it hard to fight fires.

"All the houses are made of light material, it burns like cardboard," her 18-year-old son Dylan Perez said. "In a fire it lights up like a match."

TECHO says that over 90% of such housing in Chile is at risk of landslides, flooding, fires or tsunamis.

The hills El Esfuerzo is built on are filled with shrubbery and highly-flammable eucalyptus trees and were completely burned by forest fires in 2014.

The municipality of Valparaiso said authorities were planning to build firebreaks in high-risk areas and have reinforced teams dedicated to weeding and pruning.

"We've been working persistently in this area since the upcoming summer is going to be one of the hottest," it said in a statement.

CHILE MIGRATION BOOM

The United Nations Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, estimates that 7.7 million people have fled Venezuela in recent years, where wages for many are far below the cost of living.

The majority settle elsewhere in Latin America and many say they chose Chile - one of the region's most affluent - for its economic opportunities.

A total of 602,770 Venezuelans have asked for temporary or permanent residence in Chile in the last five years, according to government data, more than any other nationality.

"Chile's one of the countries with more job opportunities," said Maria Sanchez, a Venezuelan migrant who recently arrived in El Esfuerzo after spending time in Peru and northern Chile. But, she added, working without legal documentation was difficult.

"Doors open when you meet people but it's hard when you have no papers."

Sanchez, who was employed as a nursing assistant in Venezuela, now works as a cleaner, while her husband works in construction. She says they make between 10,000 and 15,000 Chilean pesos ($11.50 to $17) a day and barely make ends meet.

According to a 2017 census, there were then 86,000 Venezuelans in Chile. By 2023, that had risen tenfold to 833,000, according to latest government estimates.

Not all Chileans are happy about that, blaming the migrants for a perceived rise in crime. Venezuelan crime gangs who traffic migrants and drugs have established a foothold in northern Chile, although surveys are mixed on whether there is a broader link, with one suggesting migrants are more likely to be crime victims.

Still, a November survey by pollster Cadem showed that 84% of Chileans are very worried about crime and 55% see increased migration as the cause.

Boric - like U.S. President Joe Biden - has sought to balance his response, increasing funding for border security and beefing up police forces, while also launching a program to allow those who have entered illegally to begin a process to formalize their status.

Last month, citing the rise in crime and public perception of insecurity, Boric adopted a tougher stance, saying that those who had not signed up for the program would be expelled.

"Those who are in Chile irregularly, we're going to kick them out," Boric said.

As of the end of November, the government said its efforts had led to a 24% rise in detected illegal border crossings, but thousands continue to enter Chile via the northern desert.

In early December, the rubble of the house that burned down in El Esfuerzo was still there, and someone was building a new house a few meters away.

"Maybe if we had running water we could put out a fire easier," Sanchez said. "I'm afraid but now I'm always making sure to keep clean, to at least have a little water inside in case something happens."

(Reporting by Juan Gonzalez in Coronel, Rodrigo Garrido and Alexander Villegas in Valparaiso; Additional reporting by Natalia Ramos; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)

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