Overseas Brave Darien Gap in Desperate Trek to America | Migration News

Bogotá, Colombia – Manguenlove Bellegarde gazed in disbelief at the steep hill he had to climb at the start of his journey through one of the world’s most treacherous frontiers.

With his Dominican partner and two young children, the 33-year-old Haitian was attempting to cross the Darien Gap – a chaotic stretch of mountainous forest 160 kilometers (100 mi) long and 50 km (30 mi) wide between Colombia and Panama .

It is the main route for refugees and asylum seekers who wish to reach the United States border. With no road, the only way to cross is on foot and by river boat.

“I almost turned back before I started. It was like climbing a wall. “We had to use the roots of the plants to pull ourselves up,” Belgaard said. “On the third day, we crossed the military base in Panama, so I thought we were close… Oh my god, it took four more days.”

Heavy rains added more time to the journey – causing the rivers to rise dangerously high, making them impossible to cross – and turned an already dangerous trek into a more dangerous one.

The journey was physically and mentally tough.

Manguelov Bellegarde, his partner Julissa Familia and their two children Darren in the small room they shared in Necocli before crossing the gap [Steven Grattan/Al Jazeera]

“We saw six dead people, one of them in the camp where we slept,” Bellegarde said. “Was in a river, his head was buried in the mud. It seemed that the river had carried him away and this is where he ended.

A few weeks ago, another Haitian, 25-year-old Steven Pierre, said he saw five bodies on the way.

“The journey was actually quite difficult, especially when it rained. It was just mud, rivers and climbing mountains without stopping, ”said Pierre. “There were pregnant women, we had to walk in rivers … children were fainting, and even men, who sometimes couldn’t keep up.”

He decides to brave the Darien Gap, knowing that some of his friends who had gone months before him were deported back to Haiti upon arrival at the American border.

The Bellegarde family left Chile in August, where they had been living since emigrating to Haiti in 2014. Dozens of others Al Jazeera spoke to had been planning to leave Chile for some time, citing poor job opportunities and racism. But the global coronavirus pandemic has brought family to a halt, along with thousands of others.

As Latin America’s pandemic border restrictions are eased, large groups of refugees and asylum seekers are on the move again, causing bottlenecks in places like Colombia.

Steven Pierre said that his friends were deported upon arrival in America, but like the others, he would still travel north. [Steven Grattan/Al Jazeera]

An estimated 19,000 people from Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela and African countries had gathered in the northwestern Colombian coastal town of Necocli, awaiting permission to cross the Gulf of Urabá by boat to Acandi to begin their Darien voyage. Was doing.

In October, Al Jazeera visited Belgaard and his family there. They had been waiting for a month to go to the Darien Gap.

Last month, the soles of the feet of Julissa Familia—Bellegarde’s companion—were raw and blistered after a week-long trek. The 26-year-old Dominican took a week to recover after arriving in Panama.

After successfully crossing the Darien, he traveled by bus through Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

In Honduras, they stopped to wait for money from their family to allow them to continue their journey north through Mexico to the US border.

unforeseen cost

The Belegarde family had to pay a number of unforeseen costs along the Darien Trek, leaving them impoverished when they arrived in Panama. Most Expensive: $320 fee to local guides known as “coyotes”. In total, nineteen guides helped the Belegarde family and 100 others with luggage through the Darien Gap.

“I didn’t expect it to be that much. I left Nekocli with $400, and I arrived on the other side with $17,” he told Al Jazeera over a phone call in November.

A Colombian man selling shoes to people waiting to take a boat across the Gulf of Uraba, to continue his journey to North America [Steven Grattan/Al Jazeera]

The United Nations has expressed concern that refugees and asylum seekers face robbery, rape and human trafficking, as well as the death of wild animals and a lack of potable water while traveling through lawless, roadless areas.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 100,000 crossed the Darien Gap in early November.

There were about 19,000 children, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said in October – the most on record.

“It was tough, but I’m tough”

In an effort to stem the flow, Colombia and Panama agreed in August to limit the number of migrants who can cross the Darien daily, which could drop to 500 in September.

A local boat company working with Colombian authorities ensures that only an approved number of boat tickets are issued each day, meaning that many refugees and asylum seekers have to cross the bay for a month or more in Necocli. One has to wait for a long time, which creates hurdles.

When they can finally start over, they face the chaotic Darien Gap.

Adam Isaacson of the Washington Office on Latin America said he was concerned there was no government control.

“When you have 100,000 people passing through a place you can’t just leave it completely unchecked. You see zero evidence of any state agent, and that’s insane.

Port officials in Nikokli scrambled to bring people who had paid for tickets weeks earlier, on boats to take them to the Gulf of Urba [Steven Grattan/Al Jazeera]

The Colombian and Panamanian foreign ministries did not respond to multiple requests from Al Jazeera on their policies in the Darien Gap.

Haitian Saint Vil Sanriel considered instant noodles, a small fold-away gas cooker and a bottle of disinfectant to ward off snakes when he left Nekocli in October. He was joined by other solo travelers and said that the rain was not very heavy and the group was able to cross in three days.

“We were sliding around the whole time, and it was difficult to move fast,” he told Al Jazeera.

Sanriel saw human corpses on the trek, and he states that his group had to abandon a weary African man in the middle of the journey, who he believes may have died.

“It was tough, but I’m tough,” he told Al Jazeera over a phone call about the trip.

“I saw seven bodies. I just tried to stay motivated to get out there and not think about it,” he said, quickly changing the subject.

Sanriel had fled Haiti and spent eight months in Brazil before deciding to travel north and try to move to the Americas.

In late September and early October, the US deported thousands of Haitians who had arrived in the country – after being out of Haiti for a few years – by plane back to Port-au-Prince.

Sanriel said that his spirits did not lower.

“I already knew [about the deportations]I’m not worried about it,” he said.

“The only thing I can do is keep going.”


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