Danielle Alvarez UNHCR Wilfredo Chacón, a Venezuelan met in El Paraíso, in southern Honduras, who is traveling with his wife and two children, aged 8 and 12.
While the world turns its eyes to the Middle East and other conflict regions, the heart of the Americas is experiencing an unprecedented migration crisis. Because, despite the closure of Roxham Road and the selective immigration policies of the United States, nothing seems to dampen the hope for a better life of thousands of people from Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, which took the northern route. Dutywent to meet them at two nerve points of this great crossing, where vulnerability and determination coexist, where life and death intersect. First in a series of four texts.
Mr. Biden, it is time to put an end to the forgetting, the abandonment, the disdain towards Latin America and the Caribbean. » This frank criticism addressed to the President of the United States and directed against his immigration policies deemed hostile was fired by his Mexican counterpart, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, on the eve of the Summit of North American Leaders – Justin Trudeau completing the trio —, at the beginning of 2023. As the year ends, it still finds echo in what refugees and migrants are experiencing, who, according to observations from the United Nations, have never been so numerous on the road towards the north.
Since the start of the year, the various transit points have broken traffic records. In the first ten months of 2023 alone, nearly half a million people from more than 100 different countries set out to cross Central America and Mexico from the Darién jungle on the border with Colombia and Panama, one of the three main routes. Added to this number are tens of thousands of migrants who cannot afford to fly and who follow in their footsteps, on foot, by bus or by boat.
“We never imagined experiencing this one day,” said Wilfredo Chacón, a Venezuelan we met in El Paraíso, in southern Honduras, who is traveling with his wife and two children, aged 8 and 12. . A civil servant at the Ministry of Labor, he says he saw his life turned upside down following a hernia operation that went wrong. He was denied disability benefits, and after refusing an invitation—more of a thinly veiled threat—to vote for the government in power, he lost everything. Practically on the street, the couple moved to Colombia. But after a few difficult months, he made the decision to go to the United States. A nomadic life that has lasted for two months already.
Photo: Danielle Alvarez UNHCR The Chacón family
Leaving to escape violence
Like that of this Venezuelan family, the stories of the migrants encountered on the road are all similar except for a few details. Whether they are camped in a post-civil war Colombia, a bankrupt Haiti, a Guatemala hit by drought or even an Afghanistan under the yoke of the Taliban, all of them have as their background a quest for a better life with the only possible outcome: achieving Uncle Sam's country.
Bilali M'Boni, a Togolese engineer, took a flight to Brazil and then began his journey which took him through six countries to Honduras, where we met him for the first time before meeting him again, in the southern Mexico, a few days later. “The problem in Togo is that young people cannot work,” he laments, while lining up in the bright sun in front of the National Migration Institute. “You go to university, you have your bachelor's or master's degree, but you can't do anything with it and you don't have the money to do anything yourself. »
Honduras facing migrants, for better and for worse
With his traveling companion, Lamine Bara, Bilali dreams of returning to school. “And when I finish my studies, I can bring home the knowledge to help my country evolve,” he says. His attempts to obtain a Canadian visa having ended in failure, he will fall back on the American neighbor, where he hopes to be able to find work. The United States is the country that welcomes the most foreign migrants — not just refugees — in the world, according to 2020 population data from the United Nations.
Photo: Danielle Alvarez UNHCR José Léon Berrena, head of operations of UNCHR-Honduras
In his offices in Tegucigalpa, José Léon Barrena, head of operations in Honduras for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, insists on debunking a persistent myth: that migrants go to the United States or Canada to find a good job. “Behind the economic reasons, there are important factors linked to violence that the victims themselves are afraid to talk about. Without this violence, people would stay at home. »
Originally from Honduras, Marvin David Matute had everything to be happy: a house, a car, a motorcycle and, above all, a lover and three beautiful daughters. He had to leave everything after being threatened with extortion by armed groups. “La Mara asked me for money to let me continue operating my recycling business. I refused to negotiate,” he says, on the sidelines of a card game played in a shelter in Tapachula, in southern Mexico. Him threatened, his wife attacked, they had no other option than to flee the country.
A “nightmare” called Darién
Started once he crossed the Guatemalan border, Marvin David Matute's journey stopped along the way, in Mexico, where he requested asylum. But for many, the dangerous journey begins much further south, in Brazil, where immigration and reception policies have been more open in recent years. The first major step quickly arises, the most difficult that the migrants will have to overcome: “El Tapon del Darién”.
Its hellish reputation is well established. The testimonies collected whisper in unison of the atrocities experienced on this path through the humid and muddy jungle, where wild animals live. “The Darien? A disaster,” says Lamine Bara, who has just returned. “In our group, we lost four people who were injured. They slipped and stones crashed on their heads,” he continued, before suddenly stopping speaking. “We had to leave them. We had to continue,” his friend Bilali intervened.
The corpses, the bones. Including those of children. Wilfredo Chacón saw them clearly on the way. “It’s a nightmare,” he says, staring into space. “[The Darién], we heard about it, but we would never expect that. » His youngest almost drowned in the river while his wife was carrying him on her back. What if it had to be done again? The answers to the question were unanimous. “Darién, never again. »
This text is published via our Perspectives section.
Sitting on a sidewalk bench in a park in Danlí, a small town on the border with Honduras, Yamile, whose identity must be protected, speaks without restraint about the violence of this crossing. “On the third day, a group of [natives] showed up out of nowhere. They were armed with guns and machetes. There were also some in the trees wearing hoods. We had no choice but to give them everything,” says this Colombian native, who undertook the journey alone with her two daughters, aged 2 and 4. She recounts the searches and hands wandering everywhere, including private parts, in search of money. “And if they want to use a girl or something, they drag her aside,” she said, looking down. In the jungle, a human life is worthless. »
In this crossing of the Americas, a quarter of the migrants are minors, unheard of, according to a very recent UNICEF report. They are also increasingly younger: more than 90% of them are under 11 years old.
Ways to avoid crossing
At the beginning of November, at the time of Devoir's stay in Central America, migratory flows had diminished somewhat due to demonstrations held in Panama to protest against First Quantum Minerals Ltd., a Canadian company which operates a huge copper mine.
But for many, this is just a hiatus before the wave breaks again. Concerned by the incessant flow of migrants – who could then be turned back at the American border – the leaders of around ten Latin American countries met in October, in particular to demand an end to the selective policies of receiving countries, who, according to them, favor certain nationalities to the detriment of others.
This is the case of Canada, which, to compensate for the closure of Roxham Road, has promised to offer permanent residence to 15,000 immigrants from Colombia, Venezuela and Haiti. The details of this program, of which Quebec is not part, are still to come.
Photo: Danielle Alvarez UNHCR On the right, Bilali M'Boni, on the left his traveling companion, Lamine Bara
The United States, for its part, established “parole” in January 2023, a new program reserved for Cuban, Nicaraguan, Venezuelan and Haitian nationals. It grants two-year work permits to 30,000 people per month, on the condition, in particular, that they are sponsored by a family member already there. The “Safe Mobility” initiative allows people to avoid the dangerous crossing by giving them the opportunity to apply for legal status in the United States at one of the local offices in four Latin American countries.< /p>
Too little too late, say several migrants we met who had not heard of it. For Bilali M’Boni, who is not eligible for these measures, the dangerous road was a necessary evil. What if he was denied access to a few countries before entering the United States? “We’d say that’s life, but we’d do it again. »
This report was made possible thanks to the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.