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A Decade Of Surging Latin American Migration


As we approach the new year, we're looking back at some of the biggest stories of the decade. Today, mass migration.


MARY LOUISE KELLY: The United Nations says every minute of last year, 25 people were forced to flee their homes somewhere in the world.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: About 100 migrants are missing in the Mediterranean off Libya. Their boat capsized during the perilous journey from North Africa to a better life in Europe.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: A migrant caravan heading from Central America to the U.S. border right now.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: Hundreds of Honduran immigrants just crossed into Guatemala several hours ago.

MCCAMMON: In 2015 alone, more than a million people sought asylum in Europe. Thousands have not survived the trip. In our hemisphere, hundreds of thousands of Central Americans, many of them children, have headed to the United States. NPR's Carrie Kahn is based in Mexico and covers Central America and the Caribbean. By mid-decade, she began to notice that it wasn't just Central Americans trekking north. Carrie joins me now to share some of the human stories behind the statistics. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

MCCAMMON: So when did you start seeing changes in who was migrating through, and what did you notice?

KAHN: It was in the earlier part of the decade. We started seeing Cubans and Haitians who began their journey in South America, mostly Brazil and Ecuador, and were heading north toward the U.S. border. You know, for generations, of course, Mexicans have been going to the U.S. in waves, Central Americans as well. But I decided to head to Panama and Costa Rica, where I was hearing about new waves of migrants coming north. And then in this makeshift refugee camp, I started seeing migrants from Africa and Asia. And that, to me, signals something was really different.

MCCAMMON: And, Carrie, I know there's one story in particular that stuck with you that you want to share with us. Will you set that up for us?

KAHN: Sure. This is a story I did back in 2016, when I was noticing Africans and Asians coming through this same trek. At this one camp at the Costa Rican-Panamanian border, I met a lot of Africans who told me about stowing away in shipping containers to Brazil or Venezuela, then getting through Colombia only to arrive at the Darien Gap.

Sarah, this is a 100-mile stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama. There are no roads. There's nothing. It's just thick, mountainous jungle terrain. And it's always said to be filled with, like, drug traffickers, pirates. It was just this treacherous place that was this no man's land. And in this camp, there were people who had walked it. And that's the first time I'd ever heard it.

And this man I met from Nigeria, his name was Ezimwa Chimezie (ph). And his story that he told me at the camp has just really stuck with me all these years. Take a listen.


KAHN: Most speak of fleeing violence in Congo, poverty in Angola and brutality at the hands of the Islamic extremists Boko Haram in Nigeria. All tell similar stories of making their way to South America smuggled in cargo ships. And all, like Chimezie, eventually ended up in Colombia at a place where the roads end and the only way forward is on foot.

EZIMWA CHIMEZIE: Then started the long walk.

KAHN: The walk.

CHIMEZIE: Yeah. It's a long walk.

KAHN: Did you know what you were getting into?

CHIMEZIE: Not at all. I never had a picture of it. If I did, maybe I wouldn't have tried it. It's hell. I ain't got words to describe the experience, you know.

KAHN: Chimezie said he was told it would be about a three-hour walk. He didn't bring much food, nowhere near enough for the journey that stretched into nearly a week.

CHIMEZIE: So practically it's like walking five solid days on empty stomach.

KAHN: Many in the camp talk of nine days walking, eating grass to survive, being devoured by bugs, and bodies left behind, buried under the thick jungle brush. Once out, the migrants ride buses straight through Panama on word of camps in Costa Rica. Chimezie's feet and legs are still swollen from his time in the jungle. His toenails are translucent, pus seeps from all sides. A man from Congo shows me his swollen legs. He arrived in the camp unable to speak.

Alfredo Delvas, also from Congo, says he was in the same shape when he stumbled here three weeks ago. His feet have returned to normal, but as we walk through the rocky terrain of the camp, he says nothing else has. He stops at one of the dozen tents set up by Costa Rica's Red Cross and pulls back its black plastic tarp.

ALFREDO DELVAS: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: This is how we're living, he sighs. Several wooden pallets line the ground. Small pieces of cardboard cover the slats.

DELVAS: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: He said 15 to 20 people sleep here with him.

There are only two worn blankets to share.

MCCAMMON: Carrie, that is such a hard story to listen to. What do you know about what's happening now to people who are making this journey?

KAHN: Well, the amazing thing is that what we saw back then in 2016 were just a couple hundred Africans that had crossed this horrible treacherous terrain. And now there are 4,000 Africans from all over the continent that are making this treacherous trek. And what it just shows is that this is now a well-worn path for a lot of migrants throughout the world.

MCCAMMON: Many of the people you're meeting are living in southern Mexico. Are a lot of them trying to make it further north? Are they trying to make it to the United States?

KAHN: Yes. They don't want to stay in Mexico. They say they can't stay here because of the racism towards blacks. They would have a very hard time finding jobs. But we have to remember that the Mexican government is under extreme pressure right now from the Trump administration to hold back these waves of migrants in southern Mexico. Initially, it was to hold back Central Americans. And we've heard about Mexico's efforts to deport tens of thousands of Central Americans. So we know about them, but we haven't heard a lot about the Africans. And the Mexicans have stopped them in the southern state of Chiapas. And so they're just stuck in limbo there.

MCCAMMON: A story you've been following for years now and it looks like you'll be following for years to come. That's NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Thank you, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.