Allyson’s breathing grows heavier as she advances along the informal border crossing, making her way across the vast, high-altitude wetland where Bolivia fades into Chile.
Accustomed to living with an illness that afflicts her lungs, the 5-year-old girl speaks in a low, gravelly voice that almost sounds adult: “We came to Chile for my surgery and work.”
The young girl and her family are among the tens of thousands of Latin American migrants and asylum seekers who have braved the highland plateau, with its extreme temperatures, for a new life in Chile. In recent years, the country has become a major hub for migration — and an alternative to destinations like the United States.
But the journey is difficult, and the Chilean government has ramped up efforts to close its borders to undocumented arrivals. Still, for refugees and migrants like Allyson, who hails from Bolivar, Venezuela, the voyage can spell the difference between life and death.
“In the hospital, we were told to leave because in Venezuela they couldn’t cure me if I got sick again,” she explains, panting as the trail takes her across one of the world’s highest borders, more than 4,000 metres above sea level.
Almost 53,900 people entered Chile irregularly last year, according to border police, a decrease of 5 percent compared with 2021. At the time, Chile was experiencing unprecedented migration, fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic and a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela that left many without food or healthcare.
Massive arrivals — about 500 entries per day — continued until early 2022, forcing the authorities to decree a state of emergency that allowed the military to take over border control.
That emergency declaration lasted until last March when Chile’s borders with Argentina, Bolivia and Peru were reopened and COVID-19 restrictions ended. But organisations monitoring the migration crisis have warned that decreased surveillance at the border means fewer people are being intercepted and registered, leading to the appearance of lower numbers.
Migrants and asylum seekers like Allyson and her family now dot the landscape along the Altiplano highlands, travelling in small groups to avoid detection. Under a new law enacted in February under Chilean President Gabriel Boric, the army could be deployed to the border if arrivals were to spike again.
But Allyson and her family trudge forward, following a path outlined by rubbish left by travellers who came before them. When exhaustion threatens to overwhelm the 5-year-old, she crawls into her parents’ arms or climbs on the back of a willing sibling.
Nearly 2,000km (1,243 miles) remain before they reach their final destination in the Chilean capital of Santiago.
‘The other route for the Venezuelan diaspora’
The journey for Allyson began in her hometown in eastern Venezuela. A small, bright-eyed child with long, floppy bangs, Allyson was born with a congenital malformation called laryngomalacia.
She lost part of her right lung at age two in an emergency surgery when fluid started building up in her chest. Knots of scar tissue still spider across her chest from where the doctors made their incisions.
All around her, Venezuela was engulfed in crisis. Economic and political instability had left basic supplies like food and medicine scarce, and poverty high. As of December of last year, inflation had reached 234 percent, putting many necessities out of reach for millions of residents.
That hardship forced Allyson’s family to look abroad for help. After her surgery, Allyson’s grandmother set off in search of a country where the child could be treated if her condition worsened.
One option was the United States. But the route would take the family across the treacherous Darién Gap, a stretch of jungle connecting South and Central America where refugees and migrants face deadly terrain and criminal gangs.
Miguel García, 20, from Caracas, Venezuela, had tried to cross the Darién Gap as well, in an attempt to reach the US. But he soon determined the risk was too great.
“The American dream turned into a nightmare,” García laughs, showing the last possessions he and his two travel companions have left: a few coins fitting in the palm of his hand.
Like Allyson’s grandmother, he ultimately settled on a different destination: Chile.
“Chile has become the other route for the Venezuelan diaspora,” Paola Diaz, a professor at the University of Tarapaca, told Al Jazeera.
She argues that migrants and asylum seekers — especially low-income families with children — are attracted to the country’s stability as well as the relative ease of crossing its borders.
For Allyson’s grandmother, the trek out of Venezuela took her across Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia en route to Chile, with Allyson’s older sister in tow. They ultimately settled in Santiago.
The rest of the family planned to eventually follow. But when Allyson caught the flu last July, her parents took her illness as a warning that it was time to leave. “We sold the few things we had to come here,” her mother Gahudy González, 43, told Al Jazeera.
Crossing from Bolivia into Chile
From their home in Venezuela, Allyson’s family set out towards the Brazilian Amazon, taking a less travelled route to reach the Bolivia-Chile border. Rather than use “coyotes” — the term for someone who smuggles refugees and migrants — they opted to journey by bus.
But the 10-day trip drained their financial resources. Still, Allyson’s father Miguel Ángel Gutierrez, 49, said the experience was relatively positive. The children treated the trip like a holiday.
“We had luck and have been treated well. When we’ve been in need, we’ve found angels to help us,” he said.
Their route took them through Písiga Bolivar, Bolivia, a border town with a reputation for car smuggling and other illegal trades. It is a dusty hamlet with half-built houses, restaurants and makeshift currency exchange shops for travellers driving along the highway that connects Bolivia and Chile.
But Allyson and her family would not be using official roads to enter Chile. The town is known as a halfway point for migrants and asylum seekers looking to cross the wilderness near the Altiplano mountains.
Jose — who asked to use a pseudonym to protect his identity — helps to coordinate some of those crossings, using a team of guides known as “chamberos” in Bolivian slang. In a roadside hostel with unmade beds, he fielded phone calls from refugees, migrants and guides, as they navigated the protests in nearby Peru.
“We help them,” Jose said of the refugees and migrants. “We leave them 500 metres from the border and point them where the vans are waiting for them, on the Chilean side. Now they pay us 50 bolivianos per person, around 7 US dollars.”
But Chilean national police, known as the Carabineros, also patrol the area, looking to disrupt illegal crossings. As the sun set and rain threatened to fall, three police vehicles sped to the neighbouring village of Colchane, a mere 3km (1.9 miles) away.
There, about 50 undocumented refugees and migrants had been discovered in an abandoned house, waiting to be trafficked to other parts of Chile.
“At the beginning of the year, people entered unaccompanied from any crossing point, but in recent months, they do so through guides,” said Lieutenant Hans Burdiles, head of the Carabineros. He warned of an increase in “coyotes” smuggling people into the country.
Starting over in Santiago
It took Allyson and her family about two hours to make it over the border, lugging their heavy bags along the informal trail. They could not risk passing through an official checkpoint: Without an entry visa, they would have been rejected.
But once on the other side, they registered their entry at a government reception centre, where migrants and asylum seekers are encouraged to report for record-keeping, regardless of legal status.
After nearly a day being processed by Chilean authorities, Allyson’s family boarded a government-chartered bus to Iquique, a city on the Pacific coast known for outbreaks of violence against Venezuelan arrivals.
Housed in tents at another reception centre with no electricity or running water, Allyson’s parents resolved not to stay more than a single night.
At dawn, they packed their bags and bought bus tickets to Santiago. But first, Allyson stopped at the beach to collect shells. “To take as a gift to grandma,” she explained.
Reunited with Allyson’s grandmother and older sister in the capital, the family now lives in a residential building about 30 floors high.
The accommodations are tight, with little space for the family of nine. Their new living room serves as a second bedroom, and its large bed doubles as a sofa and playground. In the corners of the room lie piles of blankets, clothes and other household items.
Yeanette Vilches, a Jesuit Migrant Service worker on the Chilean-Bolivian border, has seen some arrivals quickly become disillusioned with their new surroundings.
“Migrants idealise Chile, but once here, they face an expensive cost of living, cramped conditions and precarious jobs with wages that barely allow them to send remittances to their families,” she explained.
But González, Allyson’s mother, remains optimistic. Her husband has already found an informal job, and the children are starting school in March.
“We’ve given up everything and we knew that coming here would mean to start from zero,” González explains cautiously.
“Once Allyson is treated, once the doctors tell us that my daughter is out of danger and can live a healthy and normal life,” she continues, “everything will be worth it.”