Perilous, Roadless Jungle Becomes a Path of Desperate Hope

NECOCLÍ, Colombia — For decades, the Darién Gap, a roadless, lawless stretch of jungle linking South America to the north, was considered so dangerous that only a few thousand people a year were daring, or desperate, enough to try to cross it.

But the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic in South America was such that in the first nine months of this year, Panamanian officials say, an estimated 95,000 migrants, most of whom are Haitian, attempted the passage on their way to the United States.

They made the journey in shorts and flip-flops, their possessions stuffed in plastic bags, their babies in arms and their children by the hand. It’s uncertain how many made it — and how many didn’t. And yet tens of thousands more are gathered in Colombia, eager for their turn to try.

Del Rio and thrusting the Biden administration into a crisis, were just the leading edge of a much larger movement of migrants heading for the jungle and then the United States. People who had fled their troubled Caribbean nation for places as far south as Chile and Brazil began moving north months ago, hoping they would be welcomed by President Biden.

“We very well could be on the precipice of a historic displacement of people in the Americas toward the United States,” said Dan Restrepo, the former national security adviser for Latin America under President Barack Obama. “When one of the most impenetrable stretches of jungle in the world is no longer stopping people, it underscores that political borders, however enforced, won’t either.”

The Darién, also known as the Isthmus of Panama, is a narrow swath of land dividing the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Parts are so inaccessible that when engineers built the Pan-American Highway in the 1930s, linking Alaska to Argentina, only one section was left unfinished. That piece — 66 roadless miles of turbulent rivers, rugged mountains and venomous snakes — became known as the Darién Gap. Today, the journey through the gap is made more perilous by a criminal group and human traffickers who control the region, often extorting and sometimes sexually assaulting migrants.

a growing number of migrants had begun to brave the corridor, a journey that can take a week or more on foot. But after the pandemic, which hit South America particularly hard, that surge has become a flood of desperate families. At least one in five of those who crossed this year were children, Panamanian officials said.

As the number of migrants arriving at the U.S. border grew, the Biden administration retreated from a more open approach to migration embraced in the president’s first days in office to a tougher stance with a singular goal: deterring people from even attempting to enter the United States.

said in September. “Your journey will not succeed, and you will be endangering your life and your family’s lives.”

But the warning is unlikely to turn back the tens of thousands of Haitians who are already on the road.

On a recent day, there were about 20,000 migrants in Necoclí, in Colombia. And there are up to 30,000 Haitian migrants already in Mexico, according to a senior official in the Mexican foreign ministry who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“They’ve already started the journey, they’ve already started to think about the U.S.,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute. “It’s not that easy to turn that off.”

On a recent morning, Ms. Alix and Mr. Damier woke their children before dawn in the small home they’d been sharing with a dozen other migrants. Their turn had come to board the boat that would take them to the edge of the jungle.

In the darkness, Ms. Alix threw her backpack over her shoulders and strapped Vladensky to her chest. In one hand she carried a pot of spaghetti, meant to sustain them while it lasted. Her other hand reached out to her toddler, Farline.

On the beach the family joined a crowd of others. A dockworker handed a large life vest to Ms. Alix. She draped it over Farline’s small body and climbed into the boat. Aboard: 47 adults, 13 children, seven infants, all migrants.

“Goodbye!” yelled a man from the boat company. “Have a good trip!”

Government officials are largely absent from the Darién. The area is controlled by a criminal group known as the Clan del Golfo, whose members view migrants much as they view drugs: goods they can tax and control.

Once the migrants step off the boats, they are met by smugglers — typically poor men in the area who offer to take them into the jungle, starting at $250 a person. For an extra $10 they will carry a backpack. For another $30, a child.

Farline and her family spent the night in a tent at the edge of the jungle. In the morning, they set out before sunrise, alongside hundreds of others.

“I carry bags,” smugglers shouted. “I carry children!”

Soon, a vast plain became a towering forest. Farline clambered between trees, following her parents. Vladensky slept on his mother’s chest. Other children cried, the first to show signs of exhaustion.

As the group crossed river after river, tired adults began to abandon their bags. They clambered up and then down a steep, muddy slope, only to stare up at the next one. Faces that were hopeful, even excited, that morning went slack with exhaustion.

A woman in a leopard-print dress fainted. A crowd formed. A man gave her water. Then they all rose, picked up their bags and began to walk.

Today, after all, was just day one in the Darién, and they had a long journey ahead.

Julie Turkewitz reported from Necoclí, Colombia; Natalie Kitroeff from Mexico City; and Sofía Villamil from Necoclí and Bajo Chiquito, Panama. Oscar Lopez contributed reporting from Mexico City, and Mary Triny Zea from Panama City.

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Haiti Protests Mass U.S. Deportation of Migrants to Country in Crisis

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The first Haitians deported from a makeshift camp in Texas landed in their home country Sunday amid sweltering heat, anger and confusion, as Haitian officials beseeched the United States to stop the flights because the country is in crisis and cannot handle thousands of homeless deportees.

“We are here to say welcome, they can come back and stay in Haiti — but they are very agitated,” said the head of Haiti’s national migration office, Jean Negot Bonheur Delva. “They don’t accept the forced return.”

Mr. Bonheur Delva said the authorities expected that about 14,000 Haitians will be expelled from the United States over the coming three weeks.

An encampment of about that size has formed in the Texas border town of Del Rio in recent days as Haitian and other migrants crossed over the Rio Grande from Mexico. The Biden administration has said it is moving swiftly to deport them under a Trump-era pandemic order.

On Sunday alone, officials in Haiti were preparing for three flights of migrants to arrive in Port-au-Prince, the capital. After that, they expect six flights a day for three weeks, split between Port-au-Prince and the coastal city of Cap Haitien.

Beyond that, little was certain.

“The Haitian state is not really able to receive these deportees,” Mr. Bonheur Delva said.

The Haitian appeal for a suspension of deportations appeared likely to increase the pressure on the Biden administration, which is grappling with the highest level of border crossings in decades.

President Biden, who pledged a more humanitarian approach to immigration than his predecessor, has been taking tough measures to stop the influx, and the administration said this weekend that the Haitian deportations are consistent with that enforcement policy.

But the migrants are being sent back to a country still reeling from a series of overlapping crises, including the assassination of its president in July and an earthquake in August. Only once since 2014 has the United States deported more than 1,000 people to the country.

As the sun beat down Sunday in Port-au-Prince, more than 300 of the newly returned migrants milled close together around a white tent, looking dazed and exhausted as they waited to be processed — and despondent at finding themselves back at Square 1. Some held babies as toddlers ran around playing. Some of the children were crying.

Many said their only hope was to once again follow the long, arduous road of migration.

“I’m not going to stay in Haiti,” said Elène Jean-Baptiste, 28, who traveled with her 3-year-old son, Steshanley Sylvain, who was born in Chile and has a Chilean passport, and her husband, Stevenson Sylvain.

Like Ms. Jean-Baptiste, many had fled Haiti years ago, in the years after the country was devastated by an earlier earthquake, in 2010. Most had headed to South America, hoping to find jobs and rebuild a life in countries like Chile and Brazil.

Recently, facing economic turmoil and discrimination in South America and hearing that it might be easier to cross into the United States under the Biden administration, they decided to make the trek north.

From Mexico, they crossed the Rio Grande into the United States — only to find themselves detained and returned to a country that is mired in a deep political and humanitarian crisis.

In July, the Haitian president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated, setting off a battle for power. A month later, the impoverished southern peninsula was devastated by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake, and the Caribbean nation’s shaky government was ill-equipped to handle the aftermath.

According to a United Nations report released last week, 800,000 people have been affected by the quake. A month after it struck, 650,000 still need emergency humanitarian assistance.

Many of the migrants who stepped off the plane Sunday have little to return to.

Claire Bazille left home in 2015, and had a job cleaning office buildings in Chile’s capital, Santiago. It wasn’t the dream life she had left Haiti to find, but she got by, even sending money home to her mother each month.

When Ms. Bazille heard that it was possible to enter the United States under the Biden administration, she left everything behind and headed north, joining other Haitians along the way.

On Sunday, she was put on a plane and returned to where it had all begun for her.

Only now, Ms. Bazille’s family’s home in Les Cayes had been destroyed in the earthquake. Her mother and six siblings are living in the streets, she said, and she is alone with a small child, a backpack with all their belongings, and no prospect of a job.

“I don’t know how I will survive,” said Ms. Bazille, 35. “It was the worst decision I could have taken. This is where I ended up. This is not where I was going.”

At least a dozen of the migrants said they felt tricked by the United States. They said they had been told by uniformed officials that the flight they were getting on was bound for Florida. When they learned otherwise, some protested but were placed on board in handcuffs, they said.

“I didn’t want to come back,” said Kendy Louis, 34, who had been living in Chile but decided to head to the United States when construction work dried up. He was traveling with his wife and 2-year-old son, and was among those who were handcuffed during the flight, he said.

The director of migration and integration at the Haitian office of migration, Amelie Dormévil, said several of the returnees told her they had been cuffed by the wrists, ankles and waist during the flight.

After the first plane carrying the deportees landed, the first to climb out were parents with babies in their arms and toddlers by the hand. Other men and women followed with little luggage, save perhaps for a little food or some personal belongings.

Amid confusion and shouting, the Haitians were led for processing at the makeshift tent, which had been set up by the International Organization for Migration.

Some expressed dismay at finding themselves back in a place they had worked so hard to escape — and with so few resources to receive them.

“Do we have a country?” asked one woman. “They’ve killed the president. We don’t have a country. Look at the state of this country!”

Haitian officials gave them little cause to think otherwise.

Mr. Bonheur Delva said “ongoing security issues” made the prospect of resettling thousands of new arrivals hard to imagine. Haiti, he said, cannot provide adequate security or food for the returnees.

And then there is the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I am asking for a humanitarian moratorium,” Mr. Bonheur Delva said. “The situation is very difficult.”

After the earthquake in August, which killed more than 2,000 people, the Biden administration paused its deportations to Haiti. But it changed course last week when the rush of Haitian migrants crossed into Texas from the border state of Coahuila, Mexico, huddling under a bridge in Del Rio and further straining the United States’ overwhelmed migration system.

The deportations have left Haiti’s new government scrambling.

“Will we have all those logistics?” Mr. Bonheur Delva said. “Will we have enough to feed these people?”

On Sunday, after being processed, the migrants were given Styrofoam containers with a meal of rice and beans. The government planned to give them the equivalent of $100.

After that, said Mr. Bonheur Delva, it will be up to them to find their own way.

Natalie Kitroeff contributed reporting from Mexico City.

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As Fears Grip Afghanistan, Hundreds of Thousands Flee

KABUL, Afghanistan — Haji Sakhi decided to flee Afghanistan the night he saw two Taliban members drag a young woman from her home and lash her on the sidewalk. Terrified for his three daughters, he crammed his family into a car the next morning and barreled down winding dirt roads into Pakistan.

That was more than 20 years ago. They returned to Kabul, the capital, nearly a decade later after the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime. But now, with the Taliban sweeping across parts of the country as American forces withdraw, Mr. Sakhi, 68, fears a return of the violence he witnessed that night. This time, he says, his family is not waiting so long to leave.

“I’m not scared of leaving belongings behind, I’m not scared of starting everything from scratch,” said Mr. Sakhi, who recently applied for Turkish visas for himself, his wife, their three daughters and one son. “What I’m scared of is the Taliban.”

earlier this month. “A failure to reach a peace agreement in Afghanistan and stem the current violence will lead to further displacement.”

The sudden exodus harks back to earlier periods of heightened unrest: Millions poured out of Afghanistan in the years after the Soviets invaded in 1979. A decade later, more fled as the Soviets withdrew and the country fell into civil war. The exodus continued when the Taliban came to power in 1996.

Afghans currently account for one of the world’s largest populations of refugees and asylum seekers — around 3 million people — and represent the second highest number of asylum claims in Europe, after Syria.

Now the country is at the precipice of another bloody chapter, but the new outpouring of Afghans comes as attitudes toward migrants have hardened around the world.

After forging a repatriation deal in 2016 to stem migration from war-afflicted countries, Europe has deported tens of thousands of Afghan migrants. Hundreds of thousands more are being forced back by Turkey as well as by neighboring Pakistan and Iran, which together host around 90 percent of displaced Afghans worldwide and have deported a record number of Afghans in recent years.

Coronavirus restrictions have also made legal and illegal migration more difficult, as countries closed their borders and scaled back refugee programs, pushing thousands of migrants to travel to Europe along more dangerous routes.

civilian casualties reach record highs, many Afghans remain determined to leave.

One recent morning in Kabul, people gathered outside the passport office. Within hours, a line snaked around three city blocks and past a mural of migrants with an ominous warning: “Don’t jeopardize you and your family’s lives. Migration is not the solution.”

Central Europe have called to increase their border security as well, fearing the current exodus could swell into a crisis similar to that in 2015 when nearly a million, mostly Syrian migrants entered Europe.

But in Afghanistan, about half of the country’s population is already in need of humanitarian assistance this year — twice as many people as last year and six times as many as four years ago, according to the United Nations.

Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi, 40, borrowed $1,000 to bring 36 relatives to Kabul after the Taliban attacked his village in Malistan district. Today his three-room apartment, situated on the edge of the city, feels more like a crowded shelter than a home.

The men sleep in one large living room, women stay in the other and the children cram into the apartment’s one small bedroom alongside bags of clothes and cleaning supplies. Mr. Mohammadi borrows more money from neighbors to buy enough bread and chicken — which have nearly doubled in price as food prices surge — to feed everyone.

Now, sinking further into debt with no relief in sight, he is at a loss for what to do.

“These families are sick, they are traumatized, they have lost everything,” he said, standing near his kitchen’s one countertop — out of earshot from his family. “Unless the situation improves, I don’t know what we will do.”

Asad Timory contributed reporting from Herat; Zabihullah Ghazi from Laghman; Fahim Abed and Jim Huylebroek from Kabul.

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Spain Sends Troops to African Enclave After Migrant Crossings Jump

Spain deployed troops, military trucks and helicopters in its North African enclave of Ceuta on Tuesday after thousands of people crossed over from Morocco, one of the largest movements of migrants reported in the area in recent years.

More than 6,000 migrants, including 1,500 minors, arrived on the beaches of Ceuta on Monday and Tuesday, mostly swimming or aboard inflatable boats, according to the Spanish authorities, who said that Spain had already sent back 2,700 people.

The sudden arrival of thousands of people in Ceuta — more than had attempted the crossing in all the rest of the year so far — comes amid a deepening diplomatic spat between Spain and Morocco over the hospitalization in Spain of the leader of a rebel group that has fought for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco.

Videos broadcast on Spanish television on Tuesday appeared to show Moroccan border guards opening fences to the Spanish enclave. While Morocco has warned of “consequences” for harboring the rebel leader, it was not immediately clear if the spike in migration was linked to the diplomatic dispute.

International Organization for Migration with the coronavirus pandemic having likely forced more migrants to migrate through that route.

“Many of those trying to reach the Canary Islands came from Senegal and were forced to leave because of the impact of the pandemic on fishing in particular,” said Julia Black, a project officer at the organization’s Global Migration Data Analysis Center and the report’s author.

Polisario Front, a separatist movement that has been fighting for Western Sahara’s independence from Morocco.

Moroccan officials have reacted with anger over the news that the leader, Brahim Ghali, had been hospitalized with Covid-19 in Spain under an alias. The Moroccan foreign ministry said this month that the authorities would “draw all consequences” from Spain’s “premeditated” decision to treat Mr. Ghali.

Spain’s foreign minister, Arancha González Laya, said in a radio interview on Monday that Mr. Ghali’s hospitalization was a humanitarian response to “a person who was in a very, very fragile health situation.”

She added that Moroccan officials had told their Spanish counterparts that the sudden rise in migrant crossings was not the result of a disagreement over the hospitalization.

Estrella Galán, the director general of CEAR, a Spanish group that helps asylum seekers and refugees, said Morocco was using migration as leverage against Spain.

But she added that Morocco’s move was the consequence of the European Union’s decision after the refugee crisis of 2015 to rely on greater control of migration by countries outside the bloc.

“This is what happens when we convert other countries into gendarmes of our own borders,” Ms. Galán said.

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More Than 100 Migrants Are Feared Dead as Boat Capsizes in Mediterranean

CAIRO — More than 100 migrants heading for Europe are feared dead in a shipwreck off Libya, independent rescue groups have said, in the latest loss of life as attempts to cross the Mediterranean increase during the warmer months.

The Libyan Coast Guard searched for the boat but could not find it because of limited resources, an official with the service said.

The humanitarian group SOS Méditerranée, which operates the rescue vessel Ocean Viking, said late Thursday that the capsized rubber boat, which was initially carrying around 130 people, had been spotted in the Mediterranean, northeast of the Libyan capital, Tripoli. The vessel did not find any survivors, but aid workers could see at least 10 bodies near the wreck.

“We think of the lives that have been lost and of the families who might never have certainty as to what happened to their loved ones,” the group said in a statement.

who is responsible for saving those in peril at sea.

SOS Méditerranée said it expected that those missing had died, adding to a toll of 350 people who have drowned in the sea so far this year. It accused governments of failing to provide search and rescue operations.

In the years since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that ousted and killed Libya’s longtime leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the war-torn country has emerged as the dominant transit point for migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East. Smugglers often pack desperate families onto ill-equipped rubber boats that stall and founder along the perilous Central Mediterranean route.

Eugenio Ambrosi, chief of staff for the International Organization for Migration, said in a tweet, “These are the human consequences of policies which fail to uphold international law and the most basic of humanitarian imperatives.”

AlarmPhone, which provides a crisis hotline for migrants in distress in the Mediterranean, said it had been in contact with the distressed boat for nearly 10 hours before it capsized.

dangerous sea crossings. Rights groups, however, say those policies leave migrants at the mercy of armed groups or confined in squalid detention centers rife with abuses.

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After a Tragedy at Sea, a Wrecked Ship Becomes a Powerful Symbol in Italy

ROME — To most eyes, the scruffy, sun-faded ship that left Venice for Sicily last week might have looked like a junkyard-ready wreck.

Instead, as the ship embarked upon what may be its final voyage, via barge and tugboat, and arrived in Sicily on Tuesday, others were hoping it would become a monument to the devastating toll exacted by the trafficking of people across the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe by unscrupulous operators.

The ship, the relic of the deadliest wreck in the Mediterranean in living memory, is a symbol of contemporary migration in Europe that has become part of its cultural heritage, said Maria Chiara Di Trapani, an independent curator working on future projects for the vessel.

On April 18, 2015, the unnamed ship — originally built as a fishing vessel for a crew of around 15 — capsized off the coast of Libya, becoming the watery grave for the more than 1,000 people, many from Mali, Mauritius and the Horn of Africa, crammed onboard. Only 28 passengers survived.

Missing Migrants Project run by the International Organization for Migration has recorded a minimum of 12,521 deaths or disappearances during migration across the Central Mediterranean route.

The ship sank after colliding with a Portuguese freighter that had come to its assistance. An analysis of the shipwreck has been treated by migration activists as a case study on the perils of inexpert assistance at sea. The ship was later used as evidence in a case against the Tunisian captain who piloted the ship and in 2018 was convicted of human trafficking.

“The story of the boat is very complex, involving many people,” said Enzo Parisi, the spokesman for the Comitato 18 Aprile, a citizens’ group in Augusta, Sicily, that wants the boat to become a monument, “a testimony to tragedies at sea.”

In June 2016, the Italian government decided to raise the wreck 1,200 feet from the bottom of the sea to identify the victims. The ship was taken to a naval base in Augusta, and the victims were extracted.

laboratory at the University of Milan for the laborious task of cataloging and possible identification.

The ship’s destiny, at that point, was to head to the scrap yard, like hundreds of ships that have been seized by Italian authorities.

But the wreck’s symbolic power had become apparent. In 2019, supported by the Comitato 18 Aprile, Augusta’s municipal council was granted custody of the ship. The region lobbied to have it declared a monument of cultural interest and the committee came up with proposals for a memorial that would have the ship as the centerpiece.

“As a seaport, Augusta has always been welcoming,” said Giuseppe Di Mare, the mayor of the Sicilian city, which is a first landing spot for many migrants rescued in the Mediterranean, before they are processed and shunted off to other Italian cities. Because of the coronavirus, the sea rescues now include an interim stop on quarantine ships, and currently there are two such ships in Augusta’s harbor.

“Barca Nostra,” or “Our Ship” in Italian, the vessel was presented at the art exhibit as a “monument to contemporary migration” and restrictions on personal freedoms.

2019 documentary about the disaster and the attempts to identify the victims, Ms. Mirto counted headstones in a cemetery that read: “Unknown Immigrant Deceased in the Strait of Sicily on 18.4.2015.”

The project to identify victims continues, sponsored by Italy’s special commissioner for missing persons. Dr. Cattaneo, the forensic pathologist who is responsible for the university laboratory in Milan, said that funding shortages had hampered the work, and that, so far, only six victims had been identified using their methodology, which involves comparing the DNA extracted from the victims to the DNA of family members, as well as anthropological and dental traits.

She is hopeful that progress will be made this year, as the university is now working with other academic institutions, as well as Italian law enforcement authorities, but she cautioned that the condition in which researchers had found the bodies after a year under water made everything “extremely complex.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross and other national affiliates have also been involved in identifying the victims of the tragedy. They have adopted a different, complementary, approach, attempting to draft a list of the passengers onboard by cross-referencing the accounts of survivors, witnesses, relatives, friends, as well as from the objects that were recovered from the ship. Currently, they are calling some of the nearly 1,500 phone numbers — which have been tracked to 56 countries — that were found in the wreckage in hopes of gleaning new clues.

have died in the first months of 2021.

The ship will now undergo urgent maintenance, after two years exposed to a north Italian climate.

The city of Augusta has envisioned placing the ship in what the authorities describe as a “Garden of Memory,” that “will have to be in the open, because that boat gives a sense of the sea, the air, the skies. To enclose it in a building would clash with its’ story,” said Mr. Di Mare, the mayor.

“Certainly, the ship has attained an international dimension and we want this garden to become a place of reflection for the world, so that all people can ponder,” he said.

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Scores Are Dead or Injured in Fire at Migrant Center in Yemen

CAIRO — A fire broke out Sunday in a detention center for migrants in Yemen’s capital, Sana, killing at least eight people and injuring more than 170 others, scores seriously, the United Nations migration agency said.

The cause of the fire was not immediately clear, according to the International Organization for Migration. More than 90 migrants were in serious condition, and the death toll could climb much higher, according to the Houthi rebels who run the center.

The Houthi, who have controlled the capital since Yemen’s conflict broke out more than six years ago, said that civil defense teams had extinguished the fire and that investigations were underway to determine its cause.

A U.N. official said the fire erupted in a hangar near the main building of the center, which was housing more than 700 migrants. Most had been arrested in the northern province of Sada while trying to cross into Saudi Arabia, she said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to brief the news media.

“This is just one of the many dangers that migrants have faced during the past six years of the crisis in Yemen,” said Carmela Godeau, the regional director of the International Organization for Migration.

The narrow waters between the Horn of Africa and Yemen have been a popular migration route despite Yemen’s continuing fighting. Tens of thousands of migrants, desperate to find jobs as housekeepers, servants and construction workers, try to make their way across Yemen every year to the oil-rich Persian Gulf states.

Some 138,000 migrants embarked on the arduous journey from the Horn of Africa to Yemen in 2019, but last year that number decreased drastically, to 37,000, because of the coronavirus pandemic. More than 2,500 migrants reached Yemen from Djibouti in January, according to the migration organization.

Those migrants are vulnerable to abuse by armed trafficking rings, many of them believed to be connected to the armed groups involved in the war. This month at least 20 migrants died after smugglers threw 80 overboard during a voyage from Djibouti in East Africa to Yemen, according to the migration agency.

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