Facility at Guatemala's border offers rest, and a chance at a new life in the country
After a journey of 3,000 kilometres through Latin America, a small boy reached a respite centre for migrants at the Honduras-Guatemala border last month — and tore into a bag of treasures.
Among the granola bars and stuffed toys provided by aid workers, he found a new set of pencil crayons and a notebook covered in dinosaurs. He sat down at a table to colour, with the unbreakable focus of a child at play.
On that day in mid-May, the boy's grandmother had settled into a chair, letting the air conditioning shoo away the 40C heat outside. Nearby, his mother sat cross-legged on the floor, within reach of an outlet to charge her phone and scroll social media.
It was a moment of calm made possible by the Attention Center for Migrants and Refugees (CAPMiR) in El Cinchado, on the Guatemalan side of the border. Set up by the UN refugee agency last year, aid workers from the centre greet exhausted travellers near the border, offering them medical assistance, legal advice, or even just some shelter from the hot sun.
Like many migrants before them, the Venezuelan family had risked violence and exploitation along the way. They crossed the dangerous Darién Gap, a roadless expanse of jungle, forest and waterways where Panama meets Colombia, and Central meets South America.
We were in the jungle two and a half days walking … we joined others, there were so many people walking in lockstep, said the boy's grandmother, through a translator. The Current has agreed not to reveal their names over fears about repercussions for their family back home.
Some fell behind us, others went ahead. Sometimes we were 50, sometimes 20, even less. And when we were alone, we'd stop and wait for others so we wouldn't be alone, she said.
Many on the journey told us to never be alone, wait for the men, because if you're a woman, that's when people can take advantage and cause harm.
She said they saw abandoned clothes and shoes all along the Darién Gap, which is known for heavy rain and flash flooding that can sweep people to their deaths. But it was a river crossing in the last stretch that provoked fear in the family.
Those canoes filled with water, that's where the child saw crocodiles, we saw crocodiles, said the boy's grandmother
I was scared, there were a lot of people on those canoes, and they could capsize, she said.
The six-year-old boy and his grandmother left their home in Venezuela in April, picking up the boy's mother in Ecuador, where she had been working. They pressed north together, hoping to leave Venezuela's economic uncertainty behind and forge a new life in the U.S.
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After the Darién Gap, they moved through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and into Honduras, finding work here and there to pay for passage onwards. Sometimes after paying to reach the next destination, they were delivered to someone who demanded further payment before letting them go.
The UN refugee agency estimates that almost 20 million people were displaced within the Americas in 2022 (new window), an increase of 17 per cent compared to 2021. Roughly one third are displaced within their own countries, but research suggests the number of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers trying to enter the U.S. has hit record highs (new window).
Part of that increase has been linked to Title 42 (new window), a pandemic-era policy that allowed U.S. border officials to quickly expel migrants back across the border. There's nothing to stop those migrants trying to cross again, creating a growing number south of the border. Enacted in 2020, the policy led to 2.7 million expulsions before it expired last month (new window).
For the Venezuelan family resting at CAPMiR that day, the U.S.-Mexico border was still more than 2,000 kilometres away.
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Centre offers relief, advice
Migrants and refugees who reach CAPMiR have often been through a lot, said Alex Burns, head of the field unit with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in the region.
Many of them have been walking for days, months, so they have urgent need for medical assistance — many are dehydrated, she told The Current.
[We] give hygiene kits and water, small snacks and also information about, you know, the legal system and how they can access the asylum system, she said.
Burns said the people who reach the centre express a great deal of relief.
It consists of converted shipping containers, refitted as rest areas, bathrooms and showers, and play areas for children. One container hosts a Red Cross nurse who provides medical assistance, others serve as administration offices and private rooms where refugees can receive legal advice on applying for asylum. A group partnered with the UNHCR runs a shelter about 20 minutes away, where people can get a meal and a night's rest.
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The centre helps a
dynamic and diverse mix of people, who come primarily from Honduras and Venezuela, Burns said, but also other parts of Latin America or even as far away as China. The direction of travel is in both directions, she added, as some people return to their home countries after not finding what they need further north.
We really see anything from families with small children to older people, people with disabilities … LGBTQI+ [people], women who have fled because of the violence, she said.
I would say that the common thread is that they are very vulnerable.
Part of the centre's work involves identifying those particularly vulnerable migrants who may be fleeing violence or persecution, and helping them understand their rights about claiming asylum.
We want to encourage them to apply for asylum here in Guatemala. The government has been very receptive in receiving them and processing their asylum, Burns said.
That effort is rooted in the risks that aid workers know lie on the road ahead.
Any time anyone … is forced really to make the decision to leave everything behind and to take on a journey, there's a lot of risks, Burns said.
I think that here in Guatemala, we have the tools and the capacity and the infrastructure that we need to … give them the opportunity to stay here and build a life for themselves.
Money changer offers advice at the border
As a money changer on the Guatemalan side of the border, Carlos Gamboa said he's often saddened to see the stream of people passing through on their way north.
I've seen families, complete families — mother and father and children — some of them walking, he told The Current.
They risk their lives to go. Many of them are going without money, just travelling by foot, or asking [for a] ride to go to Mexico.
The 67-year-old works at the border from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week, exchanging Guatemalan Quetzals and Honduran Lempiras for the truck drivers crossing the border.
He will sometimes exchange money for the migrants and refugees passing through, but says it's usually not more than enough to buy some food.
When people ask for advice about where to find transport, Gamboa said he and other money changers urge them to
think twice, at least — don't go without any security.
people coming from Venezuela, they say, 'No, we have been travelling 2,000 kilometres,' he said.
They go, they continue, they want to go ahead.
Burns said that one of the challenges of her work is that
really there's no way to just look at someone and know what their story is, or why they're on the move.
The lesson in that is to
look at each individual as a human being, she said.
Nobody would want to leave their home and leave behind all of their belongings, their loved ones, and risk their lives on this extremely dangerous journey if they weren't obligated to do so, she said.
The international community should welcome them with open arms and try to alleviate some of that suffering.
Chasing a dream
Back at the attention centre, the Venezuelan grandmother told The Current she misses the two daughters and grandchildren she left behind.
My husband died a year ago, and really, he was my support, she said.
She doubts she would have made the journey if he'd been alive, nor does she recommend the journey to others:
I'd say don't do it, don't come.
But she added,
Now we're here, and I can't go back. And I have to move forward.
Speaking up, her daughter said her plan is to get to the U.S., where she has family on her father's side. She plans to work hard, get her son a good education, and eventually buy them all a house.
"I see it [as being] beautiful, my life there," she said.
The grandmother said she decided to make the journey in order
to fulfil the dream of my daughter.
What more can a mother do, but to accompany her child so she can accomplish what she wants, she said.
After an hour at the centre, the family packed up their few belongings, and continued their journey north.
Padraig Moran (new window) · CBC Radio