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SANTIAGO, Chile, Sept 28, 2021 (Reuters) – Venezuelan migrants in Iquique in northern Chile have been shaken by a series of angry protests by locals against settler camps which have popped up in city squares and even beaches, a reflection of simmering tensions over migration in the region.

On the weekend thousands of local Chileans marched with anti-immigration slogans and set fire to belongings of Venezuelan migrants, tossing clothes and mattresses in bonfires in the street, after a camp was cleared by police on Friday.

“They yell at us, ‘Go back to your country. What are you doing here?’ They yell at us a lot of ugly things,” said Jaqueline Rojas, a Venezuelan in the city.

“It makes us sad, because the truth is that we are not all the same. There are some people who come to do bad things and others who come to look for work. I am going south to look for work, with my daughter and my brother.”

Despite pandemic restrictions, many migrants from Venezuela and elsewhere keep trying to reach Chile, one of the wealthiest countries in the region, which has been rocked in recent years by protests over entrenched inequality.

Migration in Latin America has come under the spotlight recently, after large numbers of Haitian migrants, many whom had been living in Brazil and Chile, formed an large impromptu border camp at the Mexican-U.S. border.

In the coastal city of Iquique, more than 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) north of Santiago, hundreds of migrants had settled in tents in a city square last week, while deciding their final destination, often the country’s capital.

“This is better than being in Venezuela. Venezuela you have your home and everything you want, but you don’t have means to feed your children, dress them, or give them a good education,” Wendy González, leader of a makeshift camp, said last week.

In an operation on Friday, local police carried out evictions on the square. The Chilean government has been carrying out controversial expulsions of illegal immigrants in an attempt to discourage the arrival of new waves of families.

Juana Rodriguez, a Chilean resident in Iquique, said many locals felt anger over jobs and alleged that migrants to the country were simply asking for handouts.

The marches, mainly on Saturday, gathered an estimated 5,000 Chileans with placards reading “No more migrants.” Protesters demanded that authorities take measures to stop the entry of migrants across Chile’s northern border.

“With the march, yes, we were scared, very scared because we didn’t know what could happen,” said Nacary Mora, a Venezuelan migrant.

(Reporting by Esteban Medel; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Richard Chang) 

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