Migrants brave perilous Darien Gap in desperate trek to US | Migration News

Bogota Colombia – Manguenlove Bellegarde looked up in disbelief at the steep slope she had to climb at the beginning of her journey through the world’s most treacherous borders.

Along with a Dominican friend and two small children, a 33-year-old Haiti was trying to cross the Darien Gap – a mountainous plateau 160 km (100 miles) and 50km (30 miles) wide between Colombia and Panama.

It is a major route for refugees and asylum seekers who want to reach the United States border. Without roads, the only way to cross is to walk on riverboats.

“I was about to back off before I started. It was like climbing a fence. We had to use the roots of the plants to weed them out, “said Bellegarde.

Heavy rains added time to the trip – causing rivers to overflow dangerously, making it impossible to cross – and turning the already dangerous journey into a dangerous one.

The journey was not easy physically and emotionally.

Manguenlove Bellegarde, friend Julissa Familia and their two children in a small room in Necoclí before crossing over to Darien Gap [Steven Grattan/Al Jazeera]

“We saw six people dead, one of them in the camp where we slept,” said Bellegarde. “One was in the river, with his head buried in the mud. It was as if a river had overflowed him, and there it was. ”

A few weeks ago, a Haitian national, Steeven Pierre, 25, said he had seen five bodies on the road.

“Travel was very difficult, especially after the rains. It was just mud, rivers and constant mountain climbing, ”said Pierre. “There were pregnant women, we were walking in the rivers … the children were fainting, and even the men, sometimes, who could not continue.”

He decided boldly on Darien Gap knowing that some of his colleagues who had left a few months earlier had been deported to Haiti after reaching the US border.

The Bellegarde family left Chile in August, where they had been living since Haiti in 2014. Like many others Al Jazeera spoke to, they have been planning to leave Chile for some time with regard to poor opportunities and racism. But the global coronavirus has devastated families, along with thousands of others.

As Latin America’s border restrictions diminish, large groups of refugees and asylum seekers have relocated, leading to places like Colombia.

Steeven Pierre said his friends were deported as soon as they arrived in the US, but like others, they continued their journey north. [Steven Grattan/Al Jazeera]

About 19,000 people from Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela and African countries gathered in the town of Necocli in northwestern Colombia, waiting to be allowed to cross the Gulf of Uraba to Acandi by boat, to begin their journey to Darien.

In October, Al Jazeera met Bellegarde and his family there. They were expecting to arrive at Darien Gap for a month.

Last month, the feet of Julissa Familia – Bellegarde’s friend – were covered with blisters and blisters after a week-long tour. The 26-year-old Dominican needed a week to recover after arriving in Panama.

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

In Honduras, they stopped to wait for their family’s finances, in order to allow them to continue their journey north to the United States border via Mexico.

Unexpected money

The Bellegarde family had to pay an unexpected amount of money for Darien’s trip, leaving them penniless when they arrived in Panama. Very expensive: a $ 320 fine for local breeders known as “coyotes”. Nineteen guides all led the Bellegarde family and 100 others across the Darien Gap, helping with supplies.

“I did not expect that to happen. I left Necocli for $ 400, and arrived overseas for $ 17, “Al Jazeera said by telephone in November.

A Colombian man selling shoes to people waiting to board a boat across the Gulf of Urabá to continue their journey north to the US [Steven Grattan/Al Jazeera]

The UN has expressed concern that refugees and refugees are facing gangs, rapes and human trafficking, and the death of wildlife and the lack of drinking water on their way through the illegal, off-road area.

More than 100,000 have crossed the Darien Gap since early November, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

About 19,000 were children, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said in October – the highest in history.

“It was hard, but I’m strong”

To curb travel, Colombia and Panama agreed in August to reduce the number of Darien migrants daily by 650, down to 500 in September.

A local boat company working with Colombian authorities ensures that a reasonable number of boat tickets are issued daily, meaning that most refugees and internally displaced persons have to wait a month or more for Necocli to cross the Gulf, resulting in vutoli.

When he finally gets up, he meets the lawless Darien Gap.

Adam Isacson of the Washington Office in Latin America said he was concerned about the lack of public authority.

“Once you have 100,000 passersby, you will not be left uncontrolled. You see the unproven evidence of any government representatives, and that is crazy. ”

Harbor authorities in Neecoclí are demanding that people, who have paid for tickets weeks in advance, board a boat to cross the Gulf of Uraba. [Steven Grattan/Al Jazeera]

The Colombian and Panamanian foreign ministry did not respond to a number of requests from Al Jazeera for their views in the Darien Gap.

Haitian St Vil Sanriel loaded up the Food on the spot, a small gas canister and a bottle of pesticides believed to remove snakes as they left Necocli in October. He contacted other pedestrians and said the rain was not too heavy and the group was able to cross in three days.

“We just wandered around all the time, and it was hard to walk fast,” he told Al Jazeera.

Sanriel saw the corpses on the way, and said his team should leave another tired African man behind the trail, who he believes is dead.

“It was tough, but I’m strong,” he told Al Jazeera over the trip.

“I saw seven bodies. I just tried to stay motivated and to get out of it, ”he said, quickly changing the subject.

Sanriel fled Haiti and stayed in Brazil for eight months before deciding to move north, attempting to move to the US.

In late September and early October, the US deported thousands of Haitians who had crossed the country – some having lived outside Haiti for many years – to send them back to Port-au-Prince.

Sanriel said this did not upset her.

“I already knew [about the deportations], I do not worry about it, ”he said.

“The only thing I can do is go on and on.”

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