After two weeks of hiking through the jungles of the perilous Darién Gap with her family, Jaimarys Carolina Martínez was relieved to finally be able to emerge safely on the other side.
“It’s terrifying,” said Carolina Martínez, 31, describing the daily 14-hour hikes with her husband and 10-year-old son.
“First you have to climb what seems like a thousand mountains, then cross bogs following an endless river. If you camp too close to the river, it will blow you away. I’m just glad we came out in one piece.
And in addition to the risks posed by the unforgiving jungle, there is the threat posed by humans: bandits and armed groups regularly target migrants for theft and sexual abuse.
Today, his family is receiving care in a camp in southern Panama where Doctors Without Borders has provided them with psychological support, their first real meal in more than a week and rehydration salts as they recover from a a disease caused by drinking river water.
Had they completed the crossing a few weeks earlier, Carolina Martinez and her family would now be considering the next leg of the arduous journey they hoped to take from northeast Venezuela to the United States.
Instead, they’re stuck in camp after hearing the news that the treacherous journey has been in vain. The United States closed its border to Venezuelan migrants on October 12 as the family lay under the jungle canopy.
“I still can’t believe it,” she said, her stoic voice unable to conceal her disillusionment. “So many sacrifices, people strewn across the floor dead, and you’re risking your life, for nothing?”
Thousands of Venezuelans from Panama to Mexico found themselves in the same desperate limbo. After risking their lives to cross the only land bridge connecting South America to Central America, they received the shocking news that the United States is no longer accepting Venezuelan asylum seekers at the Mexican border.
Having been turned away by various governments in the region, many are camping in processing centers or by the side of the road, says Blaine Bookey, legal director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies. “It’s quite serious. They have no money and no choice,” she says.
The new US policy was introduced using an emergency power known as Title 42 granted for public health reasons, but critics say it is simply a way to deter Venezuelans from traveling to the United States. United.
Most of the 7 million Venezuelans who have fled insecurity and economic crisis in recent years have sought refuge in their Latin American neighbors, but a growing number are heading north for work and safety. A record 150,000 people risked their lives to cross the Darien this year alone.
Carolina Martínez says she didn’t want to leave Venezuela: she was forced to make a difficult choice when her salary working in food processing was not enough to put food on the table. “We won $40 between us and a kilo of meat cost. What can you do?” she said.
The United States will allow 24,000 Venezuelan asylum seekers to fly, provided they have a sponsor and financial support.
The program is similar to the one set up for Ukrainian refugees. But unlike Ukrainians, most Venezuelan migrants have been crushed by a decade of economic collapse and end their journey with little more than clothes on their backs.
“Most of these people are stuck,” says Tobia Borelli, who works at the Doctors Without Borders treatment center in San Vicente, on the Panamanian side of the Darien. “They are here with their families waiting for money to be sent from Western Union or just hoping for something to change. There are no clear options now.
Some ran north on foot and by bus in the false hope of getting to the United States before the new policy was enacted. Others are stranded across Central America with no money or obvious path.
They now have to decide whether to try to find work where they are, or to repeat the same difficult journey back home.
The change in policy is creating a new humanitarian crisis, say medical NGOs that care for migrants. Treatment centers from Panama to Mexico are overcrowded, leaving women and young children sleeping rough.
Another 366 Venezuelans passed through San Vicente last Saturday – many of whom were unaware of the news.
“A growing number of people have been in the camp for over a week and there are a growing number of children suffering from viral infections, diarrhea and dehydration. The situation is very delicate, because these diseases always spread when the camps are overcrowded,” says Borelli.
Many migrants are trapped by a domino effect of increasingly strict border policies in the region, Bookey says. Some, turned away from countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, were denied entry by authorities at Panama’s northern border without proof of onward travel.
“It’s not a solution and it’s not humane. It’s the total erosion of our asylum system,” Bookey said.
The United States has a moral obligation to welcome Venezuelan migrants, she said — even before considering that Washington led a failed international effort to unseat dictator Nicolás Maduro and impose heavy sanctions on its economy.
“Seeking asylum in the United States should never depend on your nationality. We have a legal obligation to protect anyone fleeing persecution. Regardless of our impact or the promises we made, it’s the law,” she said.
Most of the migrants have been blindsided by the move, but many have already lost hope of getting to the United States and are trying to find a way home.
“I have to get out of here but I don’t know how,” said Carolina Martínez. “Bus tickets are $40 each, but there are three of us and we can’t even afford a bottle of water. I just want to cry.”