How the post-pandemic lured thousands of refugees to the world’s most dangerous migratory route

In the dark, silhouetted only by the moon, a girl calls out for her mother. The week before, the two had left their home in Venezuela towards the United States🇧🇷 To get there, they would have to go through the jungle of the Darien Straitat the Panama🇧🇷 During the chaos of the trail, the child got lost. To contain her fear, Sarah Cuauro, just 6 years old, started to sing.

Nearly three years after a fatal pandemic hit the world, a devastating combination of post-pandemic, climate change, escalating conflicts and rising inflation exacerbated by war in ukraine is creating a seismic shift in global migration, forcing millions from their homes. THE UN states that today there are at least 103 million forced to move around the world.

In few places is this shift more evident than in the Darien Strait, a hostile, sparsely populated land bridge with no roads connecting the South America The Central America which needs to be crossed on foot to reach the US. For decades, the region was considered so dangerous that only a few thousand dared to cross it each year. Today, it’s a traffic jam.

A group of migrants crosses a stretch of the Darién Strait, in Panama, in an image taken on September 27 of this year.  Area is considered dangerous, but became populated after migration crisis
A group of migrants crosses a stretch of the Darién Strait, in Panama, in an image taken on September 27 of this year. Area is considered dangerous, but became populated after migration crisis Photograph: Federico Rios / NYT

Since January, at least 215,000 people have crossed the Darien Strait, nearly double the number of last year and about 20 times the number between 2010 and 2020. The huge flow is fueling a burgeoning political problem in the US, where more than 2 .3 million were detained at the country’s southern border this year, an unprecedented volume that has increased pressure on the American president, Joe Biden🇧🇷

Those who have crossed the Darien Strait this year are overwhelmingly Venezuelans, many worn down by years of economic calamity under authoritarian rule. Among them, at least 33,000 were children.

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Some migrants come from poor families. But many, like Sarah and her mother, Dayry Alexandra Cuauro, 36, who was a lawyer in Venezuela, once belonged to the middle class and now, faced with the desperation caused by the financial ruin of their homeland, have decided to risk their lives in the jungle. Dayry left Venezuela with Sarah on a bus with just their passports, US$820 (R$4,409) and their mother’s blessing.

The route starts on a Colombian beach, passes through a series of farms and indigenous communities, crosses a mountain called the Hill of Death and then follows several rivers before arriving at a government camp in Panama.

The Darien jungle was once one of the most pristine forests in the world. Some parts were so inaccessible that the engineers who built the Pan-American Highway in the 1930s, which connects the US state of Alaska to Argentina, left only one important section unfinished: a 106 km long piece of roadless road called the Darién Strait.

Today, the most common route starts at the Colombian beach of Capurganá, where Sarah and her mother took boats advertising “responsible tourism” toward a dock crowded with other migrants. Men from a newly formed cooperative called Asotracap led the group to a walled compound where they explained that the migrants would be assigned guides who would take them the first few days into the jungle for a fee of US$50 to US$150. at BRL 806) per person. Sarah and her mother joined a group with nine other people. Together, they paid over US$1,200 (R$6,453).

Image from the top of the Darien Strait, between Colombia and Panama, shows jungle around the area.  The site has become a migrant route, despite difficult access
Image from the top of the Darien Strait, between Colombia and Panama, shows jungle around the area. The site has become a migrant route, despite difficult access Photograph: Federico Rios Escobar / NYT

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On the first day, the group climbed half a dozen hills in a part of the forest inhabited only by small communities. On the second day, Sarah and her mother passed a decomposing body hidden among some trees, dead of unknown causes. On the third day, they reached a river, where residents charged US$10 (R$53) for a 90-second boat crossing.

On the fourth day, they camped in a town where locals surrounded the camp and charged US$20 (R$107) per person to leave. On the fourth morning, just before they reached the muddy mountain known as Death Hill, Sarah got lost from her mother.

On the morning that Sarah and her mother were to climb the Hill of Death, Dayry asked 42-year-old Ángel Garcia, who became her friend during the trip, to help her carry her daughter. As soon as they left Capurganá, her boots started to hurt her skin. Her feet were now full of pus and she could barely walk.

Sarah Cuauro (in a pink blouse, in the center of the group), 6, is protected by Ángel García and two friends after getting lost in the Darién Strait, in an image taken on October 8 of this year
Sarah Cuauro (in a pink blouse, in the center of the group), 6, is protected by Ángel García and two friends after getting lost in the Darién Strait, in an image taken on October 8 of this year Photograph: Federico Rios Escobar / NYT

García, who left his 6-year-old son in Colombia, lifted Sarah onto his shoulders, constantly glancing at her mother, who followed behind. At one point, when he turned around, she was gone.

That night, Sarah slept in a tent with García and her two friends. The men took care of her, but at the same time, they seemed terrified of the new responsibility. They had no idea where Sarah’s mother was or if she was hurt – or worse. There was little food left and there were still several days of trekking ahead.

They needed to get Sarah as quickly as possible to the end of the route, where they believed the authorities could help her. When they put the tent away, Sarah asked García: “And my mother?”. He replied, “We’ll meet her on the way.”

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Dayry and Sarah reunion

On the eighth day of trekking in the jungle, Sarah and García arrived at a campsite in a town that marked the last stop on the Darién Strait. Panamanian agents were at a migration checkpoint responsible for counting the number of people crossing the forest. They separated Sarah from García, putting her in a room with other children who had lost their parents. Until that moment, Sarah had been separated from her mother for three days. And the hours passed.

Then, suddenly, Dayry appeared, running across the room. For all that time, she was only a few hours late, desperately trying to keep up. But the joy was short-lived.

Dayry Alexandra Cuauro and her daughter, Sarah, embrace after three days apart in the Darien Strait.  The two crossed the jungle alongside other migrants to reach the US.
Dayry Alexandra Cuauro and her daughter, Sarah, embrace after three days apart in the Darien Strait. The two crossed the jungle alongside other migrants to reach the US. Photograph: Federico Rios / NYT

Like many Venezuelans, Dayry traveled across the Darien Strait believing that if he managed to cross the jungle and reach Central America and then the Mexico, the US would let her in. As washington has no relations with Caracas, there is no way to deport Venezuelans home. In recent months, the US has had to allow thousands of Venezuelans to enter the country and seek asylum.

The news spread quickly, which spurred a huge wave of migrants to the border. Now, the Biden administration faces an ever-increasing political and human crisis.

Sarah and her mother left the Darien Strait on 10 October. Two days later, the US Department of Homeland Security announced that Venezuelans arriving in the US via the southern border would no longer be authorized to enter the country.

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Need for ‘godfather’

Instead, in reference to a Trumpist policy adopted in the pandemic, agents said they would be sent back to Mexico. At the same time, a small number of Venezuelans, around 24,000 people, would have the opportunity to enter legally by applying from abroad and relying on an American sponsor. Sponsors must be US citizens or meet other residency requirements and demonstrate financial capacity to support the immigrant for two years.

Dayry was devastated. She didn’t have a godfather. They needed to use all the money they had. The two ended up in a shelter in Honduras with dozens of other Venezuelan immigrants. There, she waited for the family to send enough money for them to buy plane tickets back home.

His sister had come to Florida a few months earlier, after managing to reach the border, and told Dayry that he was looking for someone to sponsor them according to the rules of the new entry program in the country, before all vacancies were filled.

Sarah, battling a cold, wandered listlessly around the shelter. Of the journey that had ended there – the mud, the rivers, the nights without her mother –, she said, she remembered “everything”.

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