SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile will expel more than one hundred Colombian and Venezuelan migrants who entered the South American nation across its remote northern border, the interior minister said on Tuesday, part of a broader plan to crack down on a recent flood of illegal immigration.
The government's decision comes after two migrants died earlier this month of exposure after entering Chile from Bolivia through a highland pass in the Andes Mountains. The sparsely populated region is known for relentless day-time sun and frigid nights.
The center-right administration of Sebastian Pinera said criminal gangs have begun shuffling increasingly desperate migrants - displaced by political crisis and the coronavirus pandemic - across Chile's perilous highland border, putting them at risk.
Interior Minister Rodrigo Delgado said the country would send them back in an effort to crack down on the practice, beginning with more than 100 migrants scheduled to be flown home on Wednesday.
The dusty "altiplano" border community of Colchane, which lacks even basic services, has been overwhelmed by migrants despite the fact that Chile's borders have been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, officials said.
Many of the migrants there came from Venezuela, the government said, part of a broader, ongoing humanitarian crisis.
Venezuela's economic collapse unleashed the biggest migratory crisis in recent South American history, prompting millions over nearly a decade to flee the country out of desperation.
"Venezuelan migration has become, objectively, a regional emergency," interior minister Delgado told reporters on a visit on Tuesday to Colchane.
He said the Pinera administration was coordinating with neighbors Peru and Bolivia to combat the problem.
Opponents of Chile's crackdown on illegal immigration say heavy-handed policing of borders only hurts the migrants involved, and will do little to stem the flow of immigration.
They have called instead for more humanitarian refuges in the rugged border mountains and for boosting regional coordination.
(Reporting by Fabian Cambero and Dave Sherwood; Editing by Bill Berkrot)