Monday January 16, 2017
By Anastasia Moloney
African and Haitian migrants intending to seek asylum in the U.S. rest on mattresses inside a shelter in Mexicali, Mexico, Oct. 5, 2016.
TAPACHULA, Mexico, Jan 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - U
sing a stone, Ahmed Ali Hassan scraped away at the side of the container truck
until he made a small hole, and putting his parched mouth to it, gasped for
The overcrowded truck carrying nearly 100 migrants, many
from Africa, took turns to breathe in pockets of dry air as the truck rattled
through rural Nicaragua.
One man from Eritrea had badly swollen fingers, a sign of
"We all thought we were going to die," Hassan, a
Somali, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as he recalled last month's
"We were not treated with dignity," said the
24-year-old university student, who declined to give his real name.
As Europe tightens its borders to stem the influx of
refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, Hassan is part
of a growing surge of people from African nations seeking new routes to flee
poverty, war and persecution.
Hassan had paid a human smuggler $1,000 to guide him
overland through Central America to reach Mexico in the hope of crossing into
the United States.
He is lucky not to have suffocated. In October, immigration
officials in Mexico's Veracruz state found four migrants dead in a truck that
smugglers had abandoned.
The routes to Europe have become more difficult, said
Claudette Walls, head of the field office for the International Organization
for Migration (IOM) in Mexico's city of Tapachula.
"What's happening in the Mediterranean is that it's
becoming more and more hazardous and difficult to take that route," Walls
"Through Latin America coming all the way up to Mexico
and then on to the U.S. has become another route," she told the Thomson
Many migrants from Africa fly to Ecuador and Brazil where
few visa restrictions allow an easy point of entry into the Americas.
They join the hundreds of thousands of Central American
migrants fleeing poverty and gang violence every year, and who have been using
the well-trodden route for decades.
Immigration officials first noticed African migrants
arriving in Mexico in 2013, when around six trickled in a day, mainly through
Tapachula along Mexico's southern border with Guatemala.
Hundreds now turn up every day. Last year between 150 to 700
African migrants arrived per day at Tapachula - with a total of 19,000 migrants
arriving from Africa and Haiti in 2016 - according to Mexican government
This influx is expected to continue this year, Walls said.
Mexico has also seen a tide of Haitians coming through as
they seek a better life in the United States. Thousands of Haitians who had
lived in Brazil are leaving because of the country's economic recession.
Experts also say the surge north reflects a push by migrants
to reach the United States and reunite with relatives before U.S.
President-elect Donald Trump takes office on Jan. 20.
During his campaign, Trump took a hardline position on
immigration, including a pledge to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to
keep out illegal immigrants.
With few diplomatic ties with African nations, it is
difficult for the Mexican authorities to deport illegal migrants from Africa
As a result, many African migrants are given a temporary
transit permit, giving them 20 days to leave Mexico. In practice this allows
them to continue their journey towards the United States border without being
detained by immigration officials.
Like African migrants making the treacherous passage to
Europe across the Mediterranean Sea where thousands die each year, the journey
through Latin America is also perilous.
Hassan reached Mexico in December, after a four month
journey that included a flight from Somalia to Brazil, and then across seven
countries on bus, boat and foot. He has spent $10,000 so far, hiding dollar
bills in his underwear and socks.
Most migrants say that at some point along their journey
they have been robbed and or attacked by local gangs. Paying officials bribes
starting at $20 to allow them to continue their passage is also commonplace,
Jose Ramon Cancino, head of migrant affairs at the human
rights commission in Chiapas state, where Tapachula is located, said his office
received 3,000 complaints last year from migrants, most involving extortion and
abuse by police.
Hassan said he and a group of migrants from Africa and Asia
were robbed at gunpoint in Costa Rica by local criminals.
"They checked us one by one. Even if we had anything in
our mouths. They take everything," Hassan said.
"I kept my shoes only because I'm a size 43 and the guy
(thief) was a size 41," said Hassan, sitting on a bench at a budget hotel
known as Mama Africa in downtown Tapachula, which has become a popular resting
place among African migrants.
Most migrants say the worst part of the journey so far has
been the gruelling six-day long trek across the Darien Gap - a mountainous
rainforest wilderness that straddles Colombia and Panama. Some die on the way.
"I saw skeletons in the jungle," Hassan said.
Another African migrant, Chofong Betrand and two friends
from the Cameroon, also survived the jungle odyssey.
They arrived in Tapachula last month. Betrand hopes to reach
the northeastern United States to join his mother who already lives there.
Betrand, who belongs to Cameroon's minority English-speaking
people, said he was briefly jailed by state security forces.
"We want independence. French Cameroon take everything
for themselves," the 21-year-old university student said. "There's
fighting. They don't want to give us our independence," Betrand said, as
he queued for three hours outside the National Migration Institute hoping to
get a temporary 20-day permit.
The hardest bit of the journey is yet to come. Migrants
still have to reach the United States border, and then cross it without getting
stopped by border agents.
"A mighty hand is guiding us," Betrand said.
"No one does this journey twice." (Reporting by Anastasia Moloney
@anastasiabogota, editing by Ros; Russell Please credit the Thomson Reuters
Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian
news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and
resilience. Visit news.trust.org)