Migration Series | “Us Aymara have no borders”: Differentiated mobilities in the Chilean borderlands

In Chile, recent initiatives to manage migration have been based on nation-state and sedentary imaginaries. These approaches to migration are challenged by the traditionally mobile and trans-national lives of the Aymara indigenous population residing in Colchane and Pisiga Carpa. Focusing on the Aymara residents of these so-called transit communities and initial reception points for migrants and refugees upsets pre-supposed differences between ‘migrants’ and ‘non-migrants’ and invites us to reconsider approaches to mobility. 

Although ‘migration’ in all its guises is part and parcel of our human condition and world, there has been increasing surveillance of human mobility and normalization of difference between ‘citizens’ and (undocumented) ‘migrant others’ since the inception of nation-states.[1] The focus on difference not only justifies securitization and deterrence approaches to the governance of migration, but it also fails to acknowledge how ‘migrants’ and ‘non-migrants’ co-exist in societies characterized by everyday forms of violence, marginalization, and displacement. Following a de-migranticization approach,[2] my research that took place in 2022 and focused on the traditionally mobile lives of Aymara border residents of Colchane and Pisiga Carpa (villages located close to the Colchane-Pisiga border crossing between Bolivia and Chile) is particularly useful because Aymara narratives and cross-border practices challenge sedentary and nation-state assumptions that underpin mainstream approaches to migration. By juxtaposing a traditionally mobile indigenous population with discourses on the governance of migrants and refugees, this article invites us to reconsider approaches to mobility and the structures that render movement normal for some but ‘abnormal’ for others.


Trans-national mobilities in the borderlands

The Aymara are an indigenous community that has historically engaged in mobility practices that seek to take advantage of the variety of ecological floors present in the Andean space, which transcends rigid national borders and includes territories from northern Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru. As Aymara communities were arbitrarily separated following the establishment of nation-state borders after the War of the Pacific (1879–1884), the Aymara in Chile have historical or familial ties with their neighbouring countries Bolivia and Peru.  Moreover, due to a history of cultural and social exclusion of Aymara indigenous identity and practices, their territorial marginalization from the centres of the Chilean State, and their neglect in terms of infrastructure and public services, Aymara border residents have traditionally been  dependent on their relationships across the border.

Thus, for them, instead of representing concrete and non-negotiable physical demarcations, borderlands are places of interaction and connection: “Us Aymara have no borders,” an Aymara woman working at the health centre of Colchane stated. An example of this dynamic is the bi-national market, which an Aymara woman from Pisiga Carpa described as follows:

“Every other week, here in the border with Bolivia, between Pisiga Bolívar (Bolivia) and Colchane, we have an ancestral market where we barter and exchange things. We also bring things from the Iquique Free Trade Zone, and things also arrive from Ururo that we buy, like pasta, rice, and things, to not have to go down to Iquique.”

Since the 1990s, Chilean central governments have acknowledged the historical and cultural practices of indigenous peoples (with varied ethnicities) and their right to self-determination and maintenance of cross-border practices. The approval of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169 in 2008 demonstrates the acceptance of Aymara mobility, as the international system and its actors including the Chilean State recognize their responsibility to facilitate the economic, social, spiritual, and environmental contacts of indigenous groups across borders.[3] However, the lives and traditional practices of highly mobile Aymara residents of Colchane and Pisiga Carpa increasingly co-exist with different migrant populations from outside the Andean region and related Chilean securitization dynamics that create disruptions to indigenous livelihoods.


The arrival of increased migration and securitization dynamics

Ongoing displacement (particularly from Venezuela since the late 1990s) and amendments to Chilean legislation on visa policies in 2018 already gradually led to an increase in ‘irregular’ migrant entry, but with the closing of borders due to Covid-19 this reached a new height in 2020. The majority of the unauthorized paths of entry to northern Chile are concentrated near the villages Colchane and Pisiga Carpa, making these towns places of (interrupted) ‘transit’ for people crossing the Colchane-Pisiga border. In a context of local incapacity for reception and limited to no assistance from the central government, the increasing numbers of border crossers initially sparked empathy and acts of solidarity by border residents. However, they soon began to feel disappointment about the role that they felt forced to assume due to limited legal, logistical, and infrastructural preparation by the Chilean government, whom they considered ultimately responsible for border crossers’ fate.

On 18 October 2021, the government provided a response by merging migration and Covid-19 as one ‘crisis’ to be managed to protect the nation-state. The government’s health department moved groups of people camping in Colchane and Pisiga Carpa to a refuge located at the border. People who entered Chile through unauthorized paths were redirected by police officers to the refuge to self-report their ‘irregular’ entry to the Police of Investigations (PDI).[4] This meant that people could only access healthcare, shelter, food, and transportation services by self-reporting themselves as ‘irregular,’ a process that facilitates immediate expulsions that disregard the right to asylum established in international treaties (such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol) and Chilean Law (No. 20.430 of 2010). Moreover, expulsions were made legal by the government when it approved the new Migration Law No. 21.325, backed by a state of emergency in 2022 and increased militarization at the Colchane-Pisiga border. The government also financed the construction of a zanja (ditch) at the border to increase barriers for crossing.

This response coincides with the securitization of migration, which considers mobility as threatening.[5] The mobility (of some) becomes synonymous to criminality, and thus the migrant is criminalized due to difference – for being a ‘dangerous other’ in opposition to national citizens. This practice creates perverse consequences, which an NGO worker in migrant reception at Iquique described as follows:

“The focus is set on expulsions, delinquency, security, and at the end we know that [this response] does not deter mobility nor the root of migration. […] There is no commitment to the lives of people who are dying at the desert […]. The government needs to admit that we are allowing the death of women, children, newborns, elderly… Están dejando morir.”


Differentiated mobilities, interrupted livelihoods

While migrants are the group most visibly vulnerable to securitization measures, increased militarization and border control directly affect the dynamics and previous agreements of the Aymara living at the border. Several Aymara explained that especially initially, officials policing the border did not understand the traditional practices and exchanges that happen at events like the bi-national markets:

“We couldn’t do our markets, they didn’t let us cross to buy a kilo of rice, vegetables, meat… and nothing po, we have to tell complete stories to the officials and show our identification cards. And we began to think, how is it that Venezuelans are crossing with no documents, and we have Chilean nationality, but they start implementing rules for us?”

Coupled with poverty and exclusion, these controls on mobility exacerbated resentment and hostility particularly towards Venezuelan migrants. Border residents stopped previous acts of solidarity and often reproduced state concerns by portraying migrants as ‘others’ to protect their own belonging to the nation-state and sustain traditional border crossings. Moreover, with time, officials policing the border have become acquainted with Aymara culture and features that distinguish them from supposedly ‘dangerous migrant others,’ effectively creating a border that is marked by differentiated mobilities. While mobility is an essential aspect of human life, government actors define categories, infrastructures, and hierarchies that organize the practices and experiences of (im)mobilities at the borderlands.

Ultimately, while traditional Aymara mobility in the borderlands has been challenged by nation-state and sedentary approaches, enhanced border securitization leads residents to disassociate from other people on the move and subscribe to state and media narratives that criminalize mobility. These narratives reinforce the securitization logics that, paradoxically, disrupt the trans-national practices of Aymara border residents, making their lives, livelihoods, and mobilities less secure.

[1] Malkki, L. (1992) ‘National geographic: The rooting of peoples and the territorialization of national identity among scholars and refugees,’ Cultural Anthropology, 7(1), pp. 24–44. doi: 10.1525/can.1992.7.1.02a00030; Thanh-Dạm, T. and Gasper, D. (2011) ‘Transnational migration, development and human security,’ in Thanh-Dam, T. and Dasper, D. (eds.) Transnational migration and human security: The migration-development-security nexus. Heidelberg: Springer, pp. 3–22.  doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-12757-1.

[2] Dahinden, J. (2016) ‘A Plea for the ‘de-migranticization’ of Research on Migration and Integration,’ Ethnic and Racial Studies, 39(13), pp. 2207-2225. doi: 10.1080/01419870.2015.1124129.

[3] Gundermann Kröll, H. (2018) ‘Los Pueblos Originarios Del Norte De Chile Y El Estado,’ Diálogo andino, 55(55), pp. 93–109.

[4] Leal, R. (2021) COVID-19, the migration crisis and Chile’s new immigration legislation: Chile’s powerful get richer and its poor more outraged. Penrith, N.S.W.: Western Sydney University. doi: 10.26183/0j4y-jy05.

[5] Glick Schiller, N. and Salazar, N.B. (2013) ‘Regimes of mobility across the globe,’ Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 39(2), pp. 183–200. doi: 10.1080/1369183X.2013.723253.

Read the other topics on the migration series:

How does a place become (less) hostile? Looking at everyday encounters between migrants and non-migrants as acts and processes of bordering.

From caminantes to community builders: how migrants in Ecuador support each other in their journeys.

From branding to bottom-up ‘sheltering’: How CSOs are helping to address migration governance gaps in the shelter city of Granada

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Mariela Miranda van Iersel is a social scientist, economist, and researcher dedicated to ethically responsible mixed-methods research and currently working as an Intern at the Division for Gender Affairs of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in Santiago, Chile. She graduated in December 2022 from the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), specializing in Human Rights, Gender and Conflict Studies: Social Justice Perspectives, where she received the Best Research Paper Award of the academic year 2021/2022.

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