By Nino Abdaladze

LA PEÑITA, Panama – Nicole Elizabeth tightly hugs her 2-year-old son, David, after hours of walking in flip-flops in searing heat as her family tries to reach this indigenous village, where Panama’s border patrol has an outpost.

The Haitian woman uses hand gestures to indicate they were robbed in the treacherous jungle of the Darién Gap, which straddles Panama’s border with Colombia. Elizabeth puts two fingers to her right temple, imitating a gun.

“Muito dificil,” she whispered in broken Portugese, a language she likely picked up while living in Brazil. “Very difficult.”

Despite the dangers of the jungle, increasing numbers of Haitian nationals are risking the journey to leave their Caribbean island homeland, which is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, according to the World Bank. Panamanian officials say Haitians have far outnumbered migrants from other countries in the first three months of 2020.

Haitians made up 72.5% of the migrants detained after illegally crossing the jungle into Panama in January, February and March, according to Panama’s National Migration Service. Haitians apprehended crossing the Darién jungle skyrocketed from 31 in 2017 to more than 10,000 in 2019. Most have their sights set on the United States.

And the number of Haitian migrants continues to grow, said Oriel Ortega Benitez, the director general of SENAFRONT, Panama’s border patrol.

Many of the Haitians started their journeys thousands of miles away, in such South American countries as Brazil or Chile, which had attracted Haitian migrants with the prospect of jobs.

Although undocumented, the Haitians openly lived and worked in those countries for years, until jobs dried up and officials began cracking down. Chile, for example, changed its visa policy in 2018 so that every Haitian migrant must obtain a tourist visa from a Chilean consulate in Port-au-Prince. The visa lasts for 30 days and can’t be exchanged for work permit or temporary residence.

The change affected Marckenson Lebrun and his wife. Desperate to escape a poor quality of life in Haiti, they moved to Chile four years ago. But as the economic and political situation in Chile worsened, they made plans to go to the United States.

That’s when Lebrun discovered the route through Darién from a WhatsApp chat for Haitian nationals. The family was part of a group of migrants who spent seven days in the jungle.

“You sleep, and in the middle of the night, you hear a lot of animals. You don’t know if the animals are coming to you,” Lebrun said.

Wild animals are not the only threat the jungle holds, he said, noting that he saw several bodies. And he knew one migrant who died of starvation. He recalled that people were robbed by gangs and lost all their belongings – money, clothes and passports – and arrived empty handed at Bajo Chiquito – one of the first migrant camps on the Panama side of the jungle.

Bajo Chiquito often is where migrants first encounter SENAFRONT, which provides humanitarian assistance but also places the migrants into Panama’s “controlled flow” system, which moves them north from camp to camp until they reach Costa Rica. Before moving them along, SENAFRONT collects personal and biometric data, which is shared with U.S. immigration authorities.

“When they come here, they come with nothing,” Lebrun said as he stood in the camp.

Alexis Betancourt, Panama’s former Minister of Security who now works on the frontlines as a top commander for SENAFRONT, said migrants do not know whether they have been robbed in Colombia or Panama because the jungle is so vast – 60 miles across at many points. Many migrants discard their passports during the journey north to avoid deportation later, he said, arriving in Panama without money, cellphone or identification.

Natalie Dorcame, a Haitian migrant who lived in Chile for three years, was part of a group that traveled the Darién and fell victim to bandits.

“They have robbed us all the money we had, even food. One of my companions was robbed of a passport,” said Dorcame, whose two sons, mother and brothers remain in Haiti.

Caitlyn Yates, research coordinator at Institute for National Strategic Studies in the U.S., has interviewed many migrants as they emerged from the jungle. She said that in addition to violence and assault, the rugged, remote, dangerous terrain makes it hard to get out alive.

“They have never been in the region or they don’t know how to swim, and they share a lot of stories about folks drowning or getting swept away,” Yates said, adding that many she has interviewed remember “seeing dead bodies along the trail.”

There is a lack of information about what to expect on the journey, Yates said, and many migrants who start are ill-prepared and regret coming.

“Everyone kind of says the same thing, ‘We didn’t know, I would not have done it if I had known.’”

In Bajo Chiquito, migrants live mostly in abandoned houses and tents. Their numbers have overwhelmed Panamanian officials, leading to the lack of food and drinking water and sanitation problems. The country, which already has problems meeting the health care needs of rural Panamanians, has not been able to provide permanent medical care for migrants at the camp.

“The life right here is too much,” Lebrun said of his time in Bajo Chiquito, where he had spent eight days. “When you pass in the jungle, there are a lot of difficult things. When you come here, you don’t have a doctor to check your health.”Continue reading

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