Where do they come from?
They come from Angola, Cameroon or Somalia. They come from Bangladesh, India or Nepal. They come as a family or in many instances alone. They come from different places, with the same dream in mind: make it to the U.S. They come out of desperation due to the political, social or economic situation in their home country. They come because there is no other choice.
Today, we are witnessing the most significant migrant and refugee crisis since World War II. When we think about countries of departures we often tend to associate it with Mediterranean crossing and Europe as the final destination. The geographic location of the old continent makes it an ideal Eldorado for people fleeing turmoil in neighboring areas. Every day, many are still crossing the Mediterranean and every day, many lose their lives. In recent years, many Middle-Easterns and Africans left their countries because of war, persecution, terrorism, and poverty. This also led European borders to become hermetic. The rise of nationalism led to the increase of xenophobia, making it harder for people to migrate. The fact is that closing borders won’t stop migration flows but only change the route.
Where do they go?
They go everywhere. They go to South America. They go to Central America. They go to Mexico and eventually reach the U.S. if they survive each leg of the journey. The American dream is nothing new, the American dream is nothing old.
Today, not only Mexicans or Cubans have the American dream in mind. Migrants and refugees are coming from further away. The journey is not without risks, it is actually the most perilous and longest migration route. Before starting their journey, they have to prepare for it. Sometimes with the help of family or friends back home, sometimes selling everything they own, sometimes using smugglers. It’s a whole network. Each story is different but each struggle is the same. They can be economic migrants looking for better quality of life as much as they can be political refugees. They give up everything in the hope of realizing their wildest dream.
What is the price to pay?
Economically, the price is extremely high. If it is through a contact that organizes everything for them, it can go up to $20 000 per person. This includes flight tickets from one continent to the other and border crossing.
Migrants fly to either Brazil or Ecuador because visa regulations are not strict. Once in South America, they keep moving. They risk it all. Usually, they continue their journey walking or using a common transportation for the most fortunate. Then starts an extremely perilous journey. Besides the economic and financial aspect, there is another price to pay: their humanity. Not only can they face deportation but as well other risks such as hunger, dehydration, drowning, mafia groups who rob them, smugglers who scam them, dangerous animals and the simple setting of the Darien Gap, located between Colombia and Panama. As a matter of fact, several die and in Colombia, you can find cemeteries with unnamed graves.
What is the route like?
After getting through South America and usually crossing numerous borders (Brazil-Peru-Ecuador-Colombia-Panama), they then continue through Central America. With the help of smugglers, they get to Panama and then Costa Rica. Some even said they didn’t use any help and followed their route through Google Maps. Technology plays a big role in each leg of their journey. Whether it is to keep in touch with their loved ones, to ask for a Western Union transfer or to guide them in their quest.
Before getting to Central America, the most deadly leg is located at the terminus of South America. North of Colombia ends there but also begins Central America. Colombia is known as the place par excellence for drug trafficking. More recently, human trafficking became widely spread through migrants’ transportation and smuggling. Because there are no roads to get to the Darien Gap, the borders must be crossed by sea. While it used to be mainly migrants from Cuba, more are coming from other continents. Turbo is the main port in the region, it receives people from all over the world. Migrants’ first huge challenge is the crossing of the Darien Gap, a jungle area on the border between Colombia and Panama, about 160 km. Most of them are unaware of the risks they will encounter. It goes from poisonous and dangerous animals to guides who abandon them, Colombian mafia groups who rob or even kill them, food and water deprivation and whatever dangers that can be faced in this terrifying place.
Fishermen in this region take up to $600 per migrant for a 3 hours boat ride. No need to mention that there are no security conditions in the boats. After a 3 hours road from Turbo to Carpugana, the coast of Panama can be perceived. The only way to get there is illegal: crossing the Darien Gap. Usually, no one knows the road. However, coyotes await for vulnerable migrants in Capurgana. It takes at least 6 days to walk and cross the Darien jungle; depending on how athletic you are but also on your luck. At first, guides take $100 to $200 per migrant. That’s only for the first steps. Sometimes they need to pay other guides, up to $200. Many times, they abandon them and migrants are left on their own, without knowing how to escape this trap.
The crossing of the Darien Gap is also the opportunity to form groups because no one wants to adventure themself in the unknown alone. If some prepare provisions for the route, many end up with no food for days, surviving by drinking water from the river. Some die, some get injured, if one gets tired he might get abandoned while others keep on walking with no turning back. No one counts those who disappear. Some migrants can get attacked by jaguars or snakes, others are left alone for days with no food or water, some are robbed by the local mafia. If not robbed many end up throwing most of their belongings as the weight is unbearable. Not only there is a deprivation of food and water, as most of them lose five to ten kilograms, there is also a lack of sleep.
Constant fear but also constant rain, some don’t sleep for days because they couldn’t find refuge. The conditions are extremely harsh. Many migrants go through traumatic experiences, between seeing their peers losing their lives, or barely escaping death. Imagine for those traveling with children or for pregnant women, imagine for the underaged, yes because there are many. All see the crossing of the Darien Gap as the worse experience they had to go through, until they arrive in Costa Rica, usually with no money. They are only halfway, what the future holds is clearly uncertain.
Why are they doing it?
“For a better future because there is no future in my country.” That is the main vision most migrants share. They are leaving their countries because they don’t see a future there. Many of them are educated people, with diplomas and work experience back home. However, sometimes the situation becomes so hard that they would rather sell all they possess, in order to run away from issues, straight to the unknown world.
They still have to cross Central America and struggle with various challenges. Once in Mexico, they are getting closer to their goal. Some migrants ride La Bestia, an extremely dangerous and deadly train directing towards the U.S. borders. They can lose a leg, an arm, or their life. The next challenge to put feet in the U.S. is an arid desert, with no apparent sign of life. A desert where a tone die from dehydration, and even if borders angels are constantly leaving water bottles to avoid finding more bodies, U.S. authorities smash them instantly. Bodies are often found or because of the very dry climate, only shoes or water bottle are discovered. Jason Deléon wrote a book exposing this tragedy and the title says it all: « The Land of Open Graves ».
All this information comes from a research project I was part of in the Costa Rican Southern and Nothern borders. When I got the opportunity to interview migrants about their journey in the Costa Rican borders, many said that the Darien Gap was the worst part so far. Some said they saw death a million times, others thought they were dying there regretting leaving their home country thousands of kilometers away.
I have met many of them, including vulnerable groups such as women and children. I have no idea of where they are now or if they made it. I just hope they are safe. At that time, they still had to go through other countries in Central and North America before crossing the U.S. borders, well this is another story that requires another article. The migrant crisis in Central America also includes extra-regional migrants coming from South Asia and all over Africa and this article is meant to raise awareness on this particular topic.