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A man carrying rucksacks
Despite deadly risks and pandemic restrictions, migrants in Latin America continue to seek a better life elsewhereImage: John Moore/AFP/Getty Images

Risky obstacle course for migrants in Latin America

Maria Santacecilia
October 10, 2021

Despite the pandemic and tougher entry restrictions, migration from and within Latin America continues to grow. But it remains dangerous, with many illegal border crossings often turning into b death traps.


Nothing has been able to stop people in Latin America from setting off to seek a better life — neither the tightening of entry requirements in different countries, the harsh terrain, weather catastrophes, nor the coronavirus pandemic.

Migration in Latin America has increased due to economic uncertainty, security problems and political crises. The situation in Venezuela alone has created more than five million migrants, most of whom, about 4.6 million, are being accepted by other countries in the region.

"While the pandemic has disrupted many facets of our daily lives, the reasons that force people to flee — conflict, insecurity and other factors — have not stopped," William Spindler, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesperson for Latin America, told DW. "In fact, the total number of refugees and migrants in the Americas increased by 8% in 2020 compared to the previous year."

A woman carrying a baby in a river
A woman with a baby crosses the Acandi River in Colombia, which leads to the swampy and treacherous Darien GapImage: Fernando Vergara/AP Photo/picture alliance

There are two main patterns of migrant movement in the region. One is northward, through Central America, crossing Mexico and ending in the United States. The other is interregional, that is it takes place between the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. In recent years, these migration routes have been dominated by Venezuelans but Colombians and people of other nationalities are also represented.

Venezuela's economic exodus

Navigating an obstacle course

The borders between countries pose major hurdles in the migrants' journey. Like an obstacle course, these hindrances have to be navigated and overcome in order to cross borders between countries and advance toward a final destination.

Tougher entry requirements — both by individual states and due to pandemic-related restrictions — have failed to curb migration. Instead, they've just made the journey more dangerous.

When migrants cannot cross the border at legal crossings, they use illegal border routes known as "trochas," often risking their lives.

"Many people travel on foot, using irregular border crossings and traversing rivers, jungles, high mountain passes and deserts, and crossing the ocean in boats that are barely seaworthy," Spindler from the UNHCR said. "Many lose their lives or face serious dangers on these crossings, including human trafficking and smuggling, sexual and gender-based violence, labor exploitation and extortion by gangs and criminal groups," he added.

The smugglers, who are referred to variously as "coyotes," "chuteros," "chamberos" or "trocheros," are paid to accompany the migrants along the route. They offer their services for, at times, huge amounts of money which people pay in desperation. Nevertheless, in many cases they do not succeed in reaching their destination.

'The only safe crossings are the official ones'

Some crossings are known for being particularly dangerous. In Latin America, many migrants cross the Colombia-Panama border through the Tapon del Darien, or Darien Gap," a swampy jungle area with numerous hazards. There are no overland routes across this natural barrier between the two countries.

"The Darien Gap is the most dangerous part of the route to the United States. Basically, all migrants who want to get to Central America have to cross this border," Jessica Bolter, analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, told DW.

A priest with a mask
A priest in Agua Fria, Panama, at a funeral for a group of migrants who died in the Darien Gap Image: Arnulfo Franco/AP Photro/picture alliance

"There are criminal gangs that attack migrants, sexual assaults, and flash floods that sweep people away and drown them. Many migrants run out of provisions. As they make their way through the jungle, they can be injured or abandoned by the group they are traveling with if they can't run as fast as the others," Bolter added.

For his part, UNHCR Spokesman Spindler warned that the only safe border crossings are the official ones: "In recent months, many countries in the region have gradually reopened their borders to refugees and migrants."

"UNHCR continues to call on states to provide access to their territory and asylum procedures for people who have left their countries due to persecution, violence, rights violations and conflict."

This article has been translated from German

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