By Nina Lakhani in Tapachula, Mexico, The Guardian
The sun has barely risen and already hundreds of migrants are gathered outside the vast white and green immigration detention centre, hoping to get through its gates.
Most have travelled thousands of miles on foot, by boat and bus from South America, but few here speak Spanish. In front of the locked gates near Mexico’s southern border, it’s an eclectic mix of French, English, Creole, Urdu, Lingala and Somali.
This eclectic crowd is part of a huge surge in African and Asian migrants traversing the Americas in hope of a better life in the US. The circuitous passage means paying thousands of dollars to coyotes – or people smugglers – to cross 10 countries, where overcrowded fishing boats, mosquito-infested jungles, armed bandits and immigration agents await.
Despite the dangers, about 7,882 Africans and Asians presented themselves at Mexican immigration in the first seven months of this year – 86% higher than in the whole of 2015 and more than four times the number registered in 2014. At the end of August, Tapachula’s immigration registered 424 Africans in just two days.
Over the past decade, Latin America has become an increasingly popular route of entry to the US for Asian and African migrants, but the current surge in numbers is unprecedented.
The numbers are still tiny compared to the hundreds of thousands of Central Americans fleeing violence and poverty, but the treacherous route crossing Latin America is becoming increasingly popular as people from across the world seek new ways to reach the US.
The vast majority arrive in the city of Tapachula near the Guatemalan border, without a visa or even a passport. But unlike Central Americans, these migrants can obtain a temporary travel document which allows them to continue unimpeded to the US border since Mexico has no deportation agreements with their countries.
By 8am, it’s already fiercely hot outside the immigration center and there are too few shady trees for the growing crowd. To kill time, people listen to music on their phones or discuss the best ways to travel north. Those with money will fly to the Mexican cities of Tijuana, Matamoros or Mexicali, others will risk several days on buses through states plagued by organised crime, where Central American migrants are routinely targeted by traffickers and kidnappers.
Habte Michael, 28, from Asmara, Eritrea, just arrived – three months after setting off from São Paulo, Brazil. After a punishing journey he’s exhausted, but optimistic he’ll soon be in America where he will seek refuge.
Michael left Uganda for Rio Branco in northern Brazil in September 2015. He spent a few months learning Portuguese and planning his route, before crossing into Peru in May 2016. Next, he travelled overland on buses with the help of “connectors” – an organised network of individuals who help migrants buy bus tickets and find cheap hotels – through Ecuador and Colombia. In Turbo on Colombia’s west coast, he took a boat to Panama where he walked with Africans, Bangladeshis and Haitians for five exhausting days through acres of mountainous jungle with a coyote.
In June, after walking for three days, his group found the washed-up body of a west African man. “The river took him as he was walking in a group without a coyote, so he didn’t know where it was safe to cross. In Panama we saw another dead man, also black, without head or hands.”
Entering Costa Rica is fine, but leaving ithas been much tougher since Nicaragua decided to close its border last year to stop the flow of Cubans migrating to the US. There are about 2,000 migrants from across the world currently trapped in dire conditions on the border with Nicaragua, at a camp in Peñas Blancas. In August, 10 migrants – mostly Haitians – drowned crossing Lake Nicaragua.
Michael was caught three times by Nicaraguan immigration agents and sent back to the camp. Like at least two dozen other migrants interviewed by the Guardian, he was robbed at gunpoint while walking through the Nicaraguan jungle. Desperate, he paid $1,000 to a truck driver to take him to Honduras, but the driver never showed up.
“Each time a coyote takes your money or you get robbed, you must wait for family to send you something to carry on,” Michael said. “It’s the only way – I can’t go back.”
Michael eventually made it to Honduras – six weeks after arriving at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border. Many migrants described Honduras as the easiest country to cross, as irregular migrants – those not from Central America – are given travel permits.
In contrast, Panama and Nicaragua are the most dangerous.
Abdua Kareema, 38, from Ghana, was robbed by four gunmen in the jungle near Managua.
“They stripped the women and searched them intimately to see if they were hiding anything,” Kareema said. “One woman had her time of the month, but the robber thought the feminine pad was something hidden, so he slapped her face.”
Similar reports of sexual violence against women are common.
By mid-morning, immigration officers have let through about 200 people who will spend a few days or weeks locked in, while their travel permits – which give them 21 days to leave Mexico – are processed. Most are economic migrants and will be given safe passage by Mexico. Meanwhile, busloads of detained Central Americans enter the gates; with most deported home the next day, to face the violence and threats they fled.
The rest, including Michael, are given dates to return later in the week. Disappointed, they sit around eating lychees and cheap biscuits, deciding what to do next.
But still, more people arrive. About 15 young men from the Punjab region of India arrive with their rucksacks, straight from the Guatemalan border which they had crossed by raft.
Some flew from Delhi to Ecuador via Istanbul, others came via Indonesia and Dubai.
Source: The Guardian