Migrants from Another World: Part 1

The disorientation of migrants on their route through the Americas

Migrants crossing the Darién Gap, the geographical meeting point of North and South America. Felipe Reyes / SEMANA
27 August, 2020

I met Kamal on the morning of 16 January this year in Necoclí, a village of about seventy thousand people with a rough green sea and poor fishermen on the edge of the Gulf of Urabá, in the north-western corner of Colombia. Kamal was fleeing from Dhaka, Bangladesh, after religious extremists burned down his tea shop. His country has a Sunni Muslim majority, and, like much of the rest of South Asia, it has been affected by the ravages of global terrorism and the war against it, and by the sectarian demagogy of leaders in both hemispheres. These have led to criminal attacks on the homes, businesses and temples of Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian minorities. 

Every year, half a million Bangladeshis are forced to leave their country. Those exiled by violence, like Kamal, are joined by those displaced due to climate change, which has especially affected this low-lying and overpopulated country: increasingly frequent floods and landslides sweep the land from under their feet. 

Many of the migrants take refuge in neighbouring countries, seeking to rebuild their lives not too far away. Many, however, decide to leave for the Americas. Between 2017 and January 2019, 1,608 Bangladeshis requested refuge in Brazil.

Kamal, too, flew to São Paulo, Brazil, but he connected directly to Bolivia and there began his journey northwards overland. That’s where he was going when we talked to him in Necoclí. Throughout 2019, Bangladeshis were in the top-five list of nationalities among the Africans and Asians who took this route to the United States or Canada. Seven hundred and three travellers with Bangladeshi passports were registered at Colombian migration points, and, officially, 1,561 were presented to migration authorities in Mexico. 

The forces of globalisation that now shape our lives—transnational economies, multinational militias, remotely ordered bombings, climate change, the internet—have turned on the taps of migration across the planet. There are 50 million more migrants today than there were ten years ago, and the percentage of people living in a different country than their own has been increasing.

This cross-border investigative collaboration, involving 18 media organisations in 14 countries, uncovers an intense and little-known chapter of migration in our world today.

We have called it “Migrants from Another World” because it tells the stories of people who travel many thousands of kilometres from Asia and Africa, to the opposite side of the planet. Once in the Americas, they cross the continent in express buses or planes, in speedboats or rafts, in clandestine taxis or private cars, taking hidden routes and tricky shortcuts, always towards the north, to the United States or Canada, like stunned swallows. Often, they cross entire stretches relying only on their legs and the wings of hope. 

They are migrants from another world because the moment they set foot on the continent, their Bengali, Lingala or Hausa, their Fula, Hindi or Nepali, their Arabic, Urdu or Sinhala lose all their value, and not even French, Portuguese or English are of any use to them in the deepest villages, where no one understands them. 

They are from another world because their courage and conviction are extraordinary. Determined to make a new life for themselves, and often to open paths for those they leave behind, they take on the exploitation of swindlers on the road, the hostility and corruption at migration posts, and they endure assault and rape, hunger and fear, imprisonment and death.

“Death is also a form of freedom,” said my colleague Juan Arturo Gómez, a member of the journalistic team behind the project who lives in the Gulf of Urabá region, very close to Colombia’s border with Panama. He heard the phrase from a migrant, and it stuck with him.

Why such a long journey?

Many reasons make migrants take this route, which seems absurdly long. One often mentioned by Africans is that the road to Europe via Libya, where they torture and enslave travellers, terrifies them. Another is that the United States offers fewer and fewer quotas for refugees, which made it possible to wait patiently at home or in a friendly country until they were allowed to fly to their destination safely and directly. In fact, the Trump administration has narrowed refugee quotas from the 110,000 planned by the Obama administration for 2017 to 18,000 this year, now effectively reduced to zero with the coronavirus pandemic. This left them with no choice but to attempt this tortuous route that can take months, and to enter illegally and beg for asylum once inside. This was the case of the 1,327 Indians who were granted asylum in the United States in 2018, the last year for which the US government provides figures.

Moreover, with instant global communication no place seems so distant, no journey seems so lonely. On phones and in internet cafés, they follow the digital pebbles left behind by their fellow countrymen. Relatives and friends extend a helping hand, sometimes paying for the trip. Other times, they pay for it themselves by borrowing from their families, selling whatever they have—like Kamal, who sold his land—or going into debt with their future as their only guarantee of payment. 

Migrants cross clandestine trails near Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica, towards Nicaragua. César Arroyo / La Voz de Guanacaste

They have Facebook and WhatsApp on their phones, and they can report what happens to them along the way. They spin together networks by nationality, like the one Malians and Senegalese have been building in Brazil and Argentina since the late 1990s. In chat groups, those who have already made it through put them in contact with some migrant protectors—like Luis Guerrero Araya, who I met in La Cruz, Costa Rica—and they can let others know if there are problems. 

Once some find soil to put down roots, they call the others, and those others call others. This is what humanity has always done: migrate in clusters.

This long journey is also possible because, although they are unwelcome almost everywhere, their money is always welcomed. It flows easily from accounts in Karachi in Pakistan and Douala in Cameroon to Cruzeiro Oeste and São Paulo in Brazil or to Apartadó in Colombia, it crosses all borders with very little paperwork, through multiple international money-transfer services such as Western Union or MoneyGram. 

This is what this journalistic alliance heard from many migrants in different parts of the Americas, as well as from the official sources, academics and activists who spoke to us. 

Over 40 journalists and editors and translators, cameramen and photographers, producers and creators, programmers and developers, designers and artists built “Migrants from Another World.” We were united by one purpose: to give flesh-and-blood reality to the stories of these migrants, who have been almost invisible to the world. Even in the annual reports of the International Organization for Migration, they barely show up. 

Their stories are only printed when tragedies happen or, worse, when the perpetrators of those tragedies are the subjects of the stories. In this nine-month investigation, however, we followed their stories from beginning to end. We wanted to hear from those who managed to settle in the north and ask them whether it was worth the cost they paid; we wanted to find out what happened to those deported or imprisoned, to put faces and names to those who died and whose remains lie in unknown places or mass graves by the roadside.  

Our hope is that after cruising through the five chapters of “Migrants from Another World,” more people will know that these migrants exist, in all their humanity, and that more will hear their clamour for a safe and dignified passage through the continent. 

How many are there and where do they come from?

Because of the clandestine nature of most of their journeys, it is impossible to specify the exact number of Asians and Africans who pass through Latin America each year on their way to the United States or Canada. However, compiling the data from each country en route, we come to a figure that oscillates between 13,000 and 24,000 people.  

The animated map you have just seen traces the main routes of the first transatlantic leg of their voyage. We put this map together based on studies by experts, judicial records and reports published in the media, but above all based on the stories of the transcontinental travellers themselves. 

Sometimes accompanied by their children, they board flights from Delhi in India and connect in Abu Dhabi or Dubai in the United Arab Emirates; or fly from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, or Casablanca in Morocco, or Lagos in Nigeria, or Johannesburg in South Africa, or even Moscow in Russia. They land at airports in São Paulo where they can get off or connect to Quito or Panama. They can also arrive in Buenos Aires, Caracas or Havana. Others try their luck at the African seaports of Durban or Port Elizabeth, Freeport, Lagos, Malabo, or Pointe-Noire, where they climb onto ships, sometimes stowed away, at times cargo ships or barges that can barely cross the Atlantic. They land in the port of Santos, near São Paulo, or in the port of Buenos Aires, or are rescued in Maranhão, Brazil. 

Having reached the Americas, they face the most difficult stretch of the voyage, as is told in part two, “Routes through the Americas.”

The Urabá Gulf, in northern Colombia near the Darién Gap, which separates Colombia and Panama. In January 2019, a boat full of migrants sunk in Colombian waters near Panama. Nineteen people died and were buried without identification. Jose Guarnizo / Semana

We gathered the most recent official figures available from the countries that witness the most migrant transit, but migration authorities do not always collect identical statistics and the number of migrants of one nationality registered in Panama, for example, rarely coincides exactly with the number registered in neighbouring Costa Rica. The clandestine transit crosses even the tightest borders unnoticed and constantly changes course in order to avoid detection. 

Overall, however, the figures do establish that most of the transcontinental migrants who used this route throughout 2019 had passports from Cameroon, India, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bangladesh, Angola, Sri Lanka, Eritrea, Nepal, Pakistan, Ghana, Guinea and Mauritania. We also discovered that many of them arrive first in Brazil, a country that for some years welcomed international immigration. Between January 2018 and January 2019, Brazil gave refuge to 27,760 foreigners from 53 nationalities, among them 270 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

After a while, many migrants abandon their requests for refuge or their refugee status. As Profissão Réporter of TV Globo—another partner in this investigation—found out, thousands of migrants land up in poor neighbourhoods on the outskirts of São Paulo, live in slums or occupy abandoned buildings in appalling conditions, and cannot find decent work. After two or three unsuccessful years trying to settle in Brazil, they continue their journey north. This was the case with many Angolans and people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo we found on the trail north. Many—like Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Ghanaians—are also denied refugee permits. 

Migrants of other nationalities, such as those from Sri Lanka, do not seem to have begun their journeys from Brazil. Only 39 Sri Lankans asked for refuge there between 2017 and March 2019. But in Ecuador, according to 2019 migration registries, over ten times that number of Sri Lankans left the country without presenting their passports to migration authorities, indicating the clandestine nature of their travel. In Costa Rica, migration authorities recorded the arrival of 738. 

Officials at migration posts are likely to confuse arrivals from countries with similar names—for instance, people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and from the Republic of the Congo—and this may partly explain the inconsistency in the data. But the inconsistencies also mean that, by passing through more remote border crossings, they migrants manage to avoid detection. An interactive map in part two reveals other similar cases: in Colombia, for example, only 103 Eritreans received safe passage, while Mexican migration registered almost four times more of them.

Often, the migrants do not reach their destination. This was the case of Sanjiv, Raja and Harpreet, who were born in India and whose story we told in partnership with Confluence Media, an Indian news outlet. In Mexico, already on the last stretch of their journey to the United States, they were caught by the authorities along with 308 of their countrymen. After being locked up, they were put on a plane back to Delhi. We also tell the story of the Vietnamese Van Dung Nguye, lost in the labyrinth of an unjust justice system in El Salvador. 

Josep Pele, a journalist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who also collaborated on this project, managed to reach the United States accompanied by his family, but found his possibilities there frustrating: a waiting period of a year, without a work permit, to find out whether or not the country would give them refuge. He set out for Canada, where he now lives. We tell of his hard journey. Colette, from Cameroon, made it to Odenton, in the US state of Maryland, with her daughters. The American dream, however, was sadder than she had imagined.

A reporter for this project found a wall in a makeshift shelter for migrants in Colombia’s Chocó region inscribed with messages and signatures left behind by migrants as evidence of their passage. We started searching for them. That is how we found Ramesh, a Nepali, who wrote his message in 2015. With the help of a reporter in Nepal, we reconstructed his story. 

What are the trips like?

As told in part three, “Forbidden Passages,” the migrants face an extremely long journey in which almost all the governments they meet set hurdles. 

The crossing of the Darién jungle between Colombia and Panama, to which we dedicate a mini-documentary, is a part of the route that no one forgets—the sticky heat, the deadly hills, the smell of bodies rotting in the mud. Often, they leave everything behind here, including their souls: some have had to leave behind their children. 

The journey does not end there. When they reach the Pan-American Highway in Panama, already in civilised territory, the migrants are given a boost, as both this country and the next one to the north, Costa Rica, facilitate their passage with fast and safe transportation. Very soon, however, they arrive in Nicaragua, a country with no law for its own people, much less for foreigners. There, they must pay to get through, and they do not always make it out unscathed. We relate the experiences of migrants who cross this clandestine path.

We also tell about the leg of the journey crossing Honduran territory, from Choluteca in the south, near the border with Nicaragua, to the lonely border with Guatemala, in Agua Caliente. From this point onwards, the migrants are no longer in broad daylight until they reach Mexico. Once they have crossed the Mexican border, they have to wait in a camp in Tapachula. Due to a sudden change in the application of regulations, thousands of people were concentrated there last October, sleeping in tents in front of the migration station. The situation soon became explosive, as our partners who stayed there twice during the investigation tell in a story.

Those who never arrive

Migrants also fall en route. Most do because countries believe that closing their borders or preventing them from passing through safe places will make them give up. If the people in these countries knew the migrants, they would know that the forces driving them on are not limited to their individual wills, but belong to the times we live in—times of hunger, poverty, death and war. They fail to see that when a person deems their own country’s situation hopeless, they have no other choice but to move. 

Rarely do governments pay a political cost for the mistreatment of these migrants. In Colombia, it took a major shipwreck in January 2019, in which 21 migrants drowned, for the government to loosen its immigration rules again. Now, as travellers told us, it gives migrants five days to cross 1,200 kilometres of its territory. In Mexico, an agreement signed with the United States to reduce the flow of foreigners trying to head north is applauded by most citizens. This is a sad paradox, surely: a country of migrants proudly policing other migrants to keep them from reaching their goal. 

Wooden crosses mark the graves of unidentified migrants in a cemetery in Acandí, near the Gulf of Urabá, in northern Colombia. Jose Guarnizo / Semana
Jose Guarnizo / Semana

“Migrants from Another World” counted 110 people of various nationalities suspected of having died or gone missing on the border between Colombia and Panama. They drowned in sudden rises of unpredictable jungle rivers, or in the sea; they died of heart attacks because of the enormous effort demanded by the journey; they were murdered. Of some, nothing is known. Many do not appear in the official statistics of any country. Even the impressive database recently built by the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project accounts for but a fraction of them. 

In chapter four, “The Fallen,” we map the trail of death and disappearance of migrants of various nationalities, documented by us and the IOM between 2016 and February 2020.

Among the dead are the 21 people who were shipwrecked in Colombia and today lie buried anonymously in Acandí, a fishing village on the Gulf of Urabá. We found out how they ended up there and who they were.

In partnership with The Museba Project of Cameroon, we tell the story of four Cameroonians who drowned in 2019 off the coast of Tonalá in Chiapas, Mexico, and we relate the pain of the family members who put their faith in the future of a loved one only to welcome him back in a coffin.  

A cruel face

Despite having been subjected to a process of economic “denationalisation,” as the sociologist Saskia Sassen has argued, the countries of the world have also undergone a parallel process of “renationalisation.” This is often expressed in the detention of migrants as a way of exercising control over territory, often in contradiction to international treaties in which they have committed to giving refuge or asylum to those fleeing from war, or to treat economic migrants humanely.

In the Americas, this identity crisis of countries has resulted in an erratic legislative map that greatly favours human trafficking, the cruel face of migration. Not all migrants cross the ocean led by peers or family members. Necessity easily leads many of them into the hands of traffickers who know how to take advantage of the opening and closing of borders in order to create new costs.

Their fluid relations with other illegal trafficking mafias allow them to constantly trace new routes for their human cargo. They adapt quickly, coordinate with each other using instant and global messaging, and compartmentalise payments and information, which they give to migrants on a need-to-know basis. Trapped in their clutches, migrants have no choice but to drain their resources and those of family members and acquaintances. For the flow of money, of course, there are no borders. 

The main promoters of trafficking are not “lax” countries, as immigration authorities like to call countries that try to be in tune with globalisation and open their borders to people, but countries that decide to close their borders shut, as if migration just was not happening.  

As we show in “A Cruel Business,” the fifth part of “Migrants from Another World,” border restrictions and a growing market of travellers make prices go up and make the trafficking business buoyant. The stories in this chapter reveal how these criminal networks and their various rings of power operate: from elites who charge thousands of dollars in advance and coordinate payments between big cities, to corrupt local authorities who take their share, and down to the “coyotes” working on the ground.

Among these, we tell the stories of a hotel owner who began by doing favours to migrants near a border and ended up as a pawn on the large board of trafficking, and also of two “Mama Africas,” one in Colombia and one in Central America—the latter of whom we portray in depth.

A settlement in the migration camp “XXI Century” in Tapachula, Chiapas state, southern Mexico. Mónica González

There are parts of the route that authorities know better, such as the legal arrival and clandestine departure from Ecuador—as we documented using legal cases—and there are parts in the dark, the outlines of which we have drawn in Venezuela. 

In this unequal continent, where the application of justice is also unequal, local police can confuse migratory networks of friends and acquaintances with commercial trafficking networks, and end up punishing good Samaritans instead of criminals. This seems to be so in the case we reported against three Senegalese people in Argentina.

The Slamming of the Door

Today, as the novel coronavirus leaves a trail of death around the world, countries have closed their doors to prevent contagion. The situation of migrants who travel precariously, sometimes without documents and without money, has become critical. 

Some of them are locked up in detention centres such as the one at Otay Mesa in San Diego, California, waiting for a judge to consider their request for asylum. Now they will have to wait, with the risk that Trump—whose immigration policies are becoming increasingly xenophobic—will extend the suspension of asylum beyond the duration of the pandemic. 

Maxcello, a Cameroonian shipwreck survivor from Tonalá, Mexico, whose story we tell here, was held in Otay Mesa until mid May. It has already been announced that there are at least 41 people there with COVID-19. 

Mexicans and Central Americans arriving at the US border during the pandemic are deported to Mexico, not knowing whether they are infected or not. Mexico that has taken it upon itself to return them to their countries, or to abandon them in the south to find their way back themselves, regardless of what happens to them or what they were escaping from. 

In addition, the United States maintains its usual expulsions from detention centres without health controls. A Mexican returnee from Houston, Texas, arrived sick at a migrants’ shelter in Nuevo Laredo and has infected others. Dozens of deportees in Guatemala arrived with the virus, causing a general rejection of new arrivals. 

Many travellers from Asia and Africa who are just arriving in the United States are apparently being sent back to their countries of origin. Those who were halfway there when countries ordered coronavirus lockdowns were trapped in shelters or in border towns along the route, often leaving more migrants in these countries than they can host in minimal humanitarian conditions.  

In Necoclí, the same town in the northern corner of South America where I spoke with Kamal in January, 294 people, 14 of them Africans, had to be accommodated two months later, overwhelming the capacity of the local mayor’s office.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has been fuelled by global phenomena such as climate change and economic globalisation, has shown the great contradiction in current migration policies, and the damage these policies cause to those expelled from their homes by those exact same phenomena. 

In a world where everything circulates unhindered except for those who flee for their lives, ambiguity and whim in closing borders and the sudden suspension of the rights to protection of refugees and to humane treatment to all migrants are crimes of omission. By hiding behind dubious national policies under the pretext of protecting their citizens, countries are contributing to a global crisis that also includes them, and turning their backs on the people who best exemplify the human capacity to dream of a better tomorrow.

The Caravan is serialising “Migrants from Another World.” The other parts of the series appear here.

Migrants from Another World is a transnational and collaborative investigation from the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP in Spanish), Occrp, Animal Político (Mexico) and Mexican regional media such as Chiapas Paralelo and Voz Alterna from Red Periodistas de a Pie; Univision Noticias Digital (United States), Revista Factum (El Salvador); La Voz de Guanacaste (Costa Rica); Profissão Réporter from TV Globo (Brazil); La Prensa (Panama); Revista Semana (Colombia); El Universo (Ecuador); Efecto Cocuyo (Venezuela); and Anfibia/Cosecha Roja (Argentina). Also, Confluence Media (India), Record Nepal (Nepal), The Museba Project (Cameroon) and Bellingcat (United Kingdom). This project received special support from Fundación Avina and Seattle International Foundation.