Migrants journey from the Caribbean to the USA, via Brazil (Part Two)


Both poverty and political persecution have forced many Haitians and Cubans to flee their respective countries for the past few decades. Most of them hope to rebuild their lives in the United States, where large immigrant communities from these two island countries have become established over the years.

But this migratory movement has intensified in the past few months. Moreover, many Haitians and Cubans are also taking a new route towards the United States. Even though both island nations are not far from US shores, it is common for people seeking to migrate to the United States to travel through roughly a dozen Latin American countries – including Brazil – before reaching the promised land. Our Observers described what it is like to undertake this expensive and risky journey.

The number of Cubans and Haitians arriving at US borders is at an all-time high, according to numbers provided by the US Customs and Border Protection. While people leave their homelands for a variety of reasons, many of them end up taking the same complex, winding path towards the United States, like our Observers Johnny and Anita (not her real name).

Johnny is Haitian. He and his wife migrated to Brazil shortly after the devastating 2010 earthquake brought chaos and destruction to their home country. Johnny spent four years working as a mason in Brazil before an economic crisis hit the country. Now, he and his family are on the move again: this time to the United States.

Anita (not her real name) is Cuban. Anita and her husband sold their home to pay her way. She is travelling alone but hopes to get a job in the United States that will allow her to pay for her husband and son to join her.

>> Read the first part of this two-part series to find out how Johnny and Anita traveled from their home in Cuba and Haiti respectively all the way to Turbo, Colombia.

This map shows different migration routes taken by Cubans and Haitians seeking to reach the United States.

Blue demarcates routes taken by Cubans travelling to the US, while red shows the most common migration routes used by Haitians. Once they reach Colombia, both groups take a similar path across Central America (shown in green).


Colombia to Panama: risking death at sea or in the jungle

After passing through Turbo, most migrants manage to cross the border illegally into Panama. Johnny described this part of the journey:

There are two ways of getting into Panama. You can walk through the Darién jungle for several days or rent a commercial boat to cross the gulf of Urabá, which costs about 40 dollars per person [equivalent to 35 euros]. I chose the second option because it is faster, even if it is dangerous. [Editor’s note: Many people have died after their boats have capsized. Often, people attempting this journey travel on illegal boats, which do not meet the same safety and security standards as commercial boats.]

There were 15 of us on the boat. I was travelling with Haitians and Cubans, but there were also Africans [Editor’s note: People from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Ghana, Senegal, Guinea, Gambia, Somalia, Angola, Eritrea, Cameroon, Togo and Sierra Leone have all been known to take this route, as well as people from Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan].

The boat journey between Turbo, Colombia and Sapzurro, Panama. These photos were published on August 10 in the Facebook group “Albergue Turbo Cubans for Freedom”. The migrants’ faces were blurred by France 24.

This photo was published on March 17 on the Facebook page “QUE PASEN LOS CUBANOS” with the following caption: “These are the boats that make the crossing between Turbo and the La Miel beach [in Panama]. Photo blurred by France 24.

Anita, on the other hand, crossed from Colombia into Panama by travelling through the Darién forest on foot. She made the journey with a group of other Cubans.

About 150 of us left Turbo at the same time, so we split into smaller groups. The journey itself was horrible. We walked for seven days. There were places where we had to swim because the rivers had flooded their banks. Some of the people I was travelling with fell ill with the flu. To save money, we decided not to hire a guide, but that meant that we got lost on several occasions. Luckily, we always ran into someone who could tell us which way to go. Everyone made it, but I truly believe it was because we all helped each other. For example, we ran out of food during the last two days and some Haitians who were also making the journey shared theirs with us.

This video was filmed in the Darién jungle by one of our Observers. France 24 journalist Alexandre Capron edited this video.

Several armed groups operate in the Darién jungle, making the area particularly dangerous. These groups are involved in both drug smuggling and human trafficking. Sometimes, members of these armed groups force people making the journey to become “mules”, carrying drugs across the border.

This photo was taken in the Darién jungle by a Cuban who was making the crossing on foot.

Migrant camp in Puerto Obaldia, Panama. This video was published on the Facebook page “QUE PASEN LOS CUBANOS”.

Step 4

Facing closed borders in Central America

The journey across Central America has become even more dangerous and complicated since the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica was closed in November 2015 in an attempt to stem the flow of people arriving. With the route north blocked, Panama and Costa Rica were afraid of a build-up of migrants in their respective countries, so they closed their borders as well.

Johnny described the difficulties that he and others encountered as they tried to travel north.

We travelled across Panama by bus, until we reached the border with Costa Rica, but it was closed. We waited there for a month before obtaining papers that gave us about a month to cross Costa Rica. It wasn’t clear to us why we were suddenly given the authorisation.

Next, we travelled by bus to the border with Nicaragua. It was also closed. We waited another month, but the situation showed no signs of improving, so we paid a smuggler $800 dollars [equivalent to roughly 707 euros] and crossed the border with him on foot. We spent three days walking through Nicaragua before he left us near the border with Honduras.

Guerline Jozes is a member of the “Haitian Bridge Alliance”, an American organisation that helps Haitians move to San Diego, California. He said that Johnny was lucky and that many Haitians don’t fare as well when crossing Nicaragua.

About 80 percent of the Haitians who we talk to tell us that their smuggler abandoned them halfway through the journey. Often, they are forced to turn around and travel back south to find another smuggler. This ends up costing them much more than they expected.

People camp in Peñas Blancas, a town on the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. This photo was posted on the Facebook page: "QUE PASEN LOS CUBANOS".

Johnny continues:

Once we got to the Honduran border, we were given a temporary pass that allowed us to cross the country. So we took the bus to Guatemala, which cost us about $70 per person [62 euros]. Next, we paid a smuggler to enter Guatemala where we had to take another bus.

When we got to Mexico, we were given another temporary pass after two days. We took a bus across the country before arriving at the US border – in southern California – in early July. We spent several days there before being granted entry on an I-94 form, like most Haitians [Editor’s Note: The I-94 is a visa waiver for those who are officially considered ‘non-immigrants’].

To reach the United States, Johnny and his family travelled for three months and spent $7,500 (about 6,620 euros).

According to Guerline Jones, Johnny’s trip was cheaper and easier than most:

“Often, it takes people about three to six months to make this journey and it can cost up to $6,000 per person [about 5,300 euros].”

Anita, too, recently made it to the United States – to Texas – safe and sound.

But not all migrants make it to the United States. Many of them die during the trip, victims of armed groups, hunger, fatigue, accidents or illness.