“Little Haiti”: Chilean city attracts recent wave of Haitian immigration

Stories of trafficking of immigrants are common in Quilicura, home of the largest Haitian community in the country

[Translation of an article from Opera Mundi of São Paulo, Brazil, for March 2, 2013. See original here.]

By Víctor Farinelli

Fewer than 20 ten years ago, Haitians now number almost 4,000 in Chile as a whole. The majority come through the Dominican Republic, drawn by promises of jobs and prosperity, but are then abandoned to their own fate in a country with a cold climate and a scant welcome for new inhabitants.

Between 2009 and 2011, 2,600 new Haitians came into the South American country, compared with the little more than 700 who left. In 2011 alone, of the 1,369 who arrived, 1,056 managed to stay in Andean lands.

There are many reasons for the phenomenon, but one of the main ones is the work of immigrant trafficking gangs. Although many Haitians who live in South America have passed through countries like Peru, Argentina and Brazil, the bulk of the flow into Chile comes directly through the Dominican Republic. There are at least two gangs operating there who take them directly to Santiago.

According to the PDI (Policía de Investigaciones, equivalent of the Brazilian Policia Civil), in the past five years seven arrests have been made in connection with gangs trafficking in Haitians. Cristián Lucero, PDI communications adviser, states that those involved belong to two different groups. “At least one of them has worked in other countries as well, like Brazil. In collaboration with the Brazilian Policia Federal and with the police of other countries, besides the police of the Dominican Republic, we are dismantling that connection,” Lucero explains.

Legally or otherwise, Haitians have in fact already ceased to be a novelty in Chile. According to the National Immigration Service, the wave of Haitian immigration is now comparable to those of Colombians and Ecuadorians, which are sizeable.

Little Haiti

The gathering point for these Caribbeans is the central area of the country, especially Quilicura, a town in the northeastern part of Greater Santiago. Home to the largest industrial park of the country, the city includes almost 3,000 legalized Haitians, according to data from the Haitian embassy in Chile.

Quilicura is near the international airport of Pudahuel, the largest in the country, but is unknown to most foreigners. The PDI was asked about the preference, since many of them arrived saying they had come as tourists. In contrast with the Haitians in the neighborhoods in central Santiago, who arrive in Chile through trafficking networks, those in Quilicura are also encouraged by relatives or friends.

The pioneers of this community remember hard times. Ally Lydiems, a resident of the city since 2007, worked for four years as a welder and painter, and, inspired by the arrival of new countrymen, opened his own business. His beauty salon was exclusive to the community but now serves Chileans and other immigrants as well, all of them interested in Afro hairstyles. “I knew I would have a captive audience,” he says, commenting that based on his example other Haitian establishments were opened.

Haitian immigration transformed the city and brought the presence of Black people on the streets, something unusual in Chile. The relations, although not causing conflict, is distant. In comparison with other immigrants like Peruvians and Colombians, the Haitians tell of difficulties integrating with the Chileans, describing a “social barrier.”

Haitian business

Before the growth of the migration flow, the Haitians of Chile frequented mainly Peruvian establishments, especially telephone centers, due to the low prices. Now that scene is beginning to change.

Thirty-five-year-old Youry Fillien, a former French literature teacher, opened the La Belle Étoile restaurant, specializing in typical Haitian food. He has also been involved in other initiatives to bring his compatriots together, among them the formation in 2009 of the AESCFCH (Asociación Educativa y Sociocultural Flambeau de Chile). This is an organization that aids those who have arrived recently, with tips on housing and jobs, as wells as serving as a reference point for promoting Haitian culture in the city.

Fillien, who landed in 2007, explains the preference for Quilicura. “Santiago itself is a difficult city for immigrants, not only for Haitians. In Quilicura the cost of living is not so high and there is not the hostility felt in the center,” he says.

“The best organized in the world.”

Haitians in Chile often mistrust the embassy of their home country, and it is not rare to find those who say they have no contact – mainly because, according to those who know the reality of immigrants in different countries, no consular mission of the country offers effective help.

The Haitian embassy in Santiago is located in Las Condes, one of the exclusive neighborhoods of the capital, kilometers away from where most of the countrymen live. Until 2009, the workers there did not even speak French. However, change came with the arrival of the new ambassador, Jean-Victor Harvel, who besides improving consular services, also began to act in concert with the communities.

“The Haitians who arrive in Chile do not know what they will find, but those who are already here are many, and they are capable of helping them,” says Harvel, who began organizing several community centers in Santiago and in Quilicura. His objective is ambitious: “I want the Haitian community in Chile to be the best organized in the world.”

The diplomat worked in the Haitian embassy in Brasilia from 1996 to 2001. Then he went on to other missions in other countries of the region and he says that since the middle of the last decade Haitians have begun to look at this region with different eyes.

“It may have been contact with the Chilean and Brazilian military that made them think of these countries as alternatives to destinations like France and Canada, although these continue to be the most sought after,” Harvel comments.

The diplomat foresees a better future for the immigrants: “There are many of us. The recently arrived are not alone and we are organizing better in a country that will soon be losing that strangeness of the early years. There is reason for hope.”