LAJAS BLANCAS, Panama (AP) – Duperat Laurette fled Haiti after the powerful earthquake that struck her country in 2010.
The 45-year-old Haitian was first in the Dominican Republic and then in Chile. From there he left for Panama in order to head to the United States in search of work to help his 14 siblings and his elderly mother that he left behind.
But the coronavirus stopped their journey.
Panama, considered a transit point for virtually all migrants heading from South America to the United States, closed its borders on March 16 in an effort to contain the spread of the pandemic.
Almost 2,000 migrants – mostly Haitians and a handful of Cubans, Africans and Asians – were trapped in camps in the jungle of Darien province, on the southern border with Colombia. Another 500 remain in a Panamanian area bordering Costa Rica.
They are just a few of the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of migrants stranded in various countries around the world due to border closures during the health crisis. Thousands of workers from across Asia were trapped outside of New Zealand when that country closed its borders. Still others stayed at Moscow airports. They have also been left homeless in the Sahara desert after being deported without notice from detention centers in Algeria and Libya.
Migrants stranded in Panama know that the United States suspended the asylum process at its southern border, but they still demand that they be allowed to continue their route to try to enter that nation in some way. They cannot bear to prolong their confinement any longer, while rejecting the possibility of returning to their countries with international aid.
Laurette and her husband emerged from the dangerous Darien jungle seven months ago and have been unable to advance since. He is among a group of 200 migrants in Lajas Blancas, where he arrived from another camp located in the nearby indigenous village of Peñitas.
While in the camps, she was taken to a hospital with stomach pains. Doctors diagnosed him with a fibroid that has caused him to lose weight.
« They took me to the hospital for surgery, but they never did, » Laurette said. « They said there was no space for the operation, the hospital is full of COVID-19 cases. »
Even under these conditions, she and her husband reject the offer of the Panamanian government to facilitate a voluntary return. Many of the migrants left their countries of origin years ago and cannot imagine returning.
« I’m still sick, I don’t know what I’m going to do, » Laurette said in Creole, her native language.
Tensions have increased in Lajas Blancas, but also in Peñitas, where in early August some of the approximately 1,100 migrants who are there allegedly set fire to some tents with medical supplies. Eight migrants are incarcerated for these acts and could be deported.
“We know there is a very strong disease outside,” said Jean Bernadeau, as he lifted a girl to show the hives from mosquito bites on her legs in Lajas Blancas. « We can’t stay here forever. »
The migratory flow through the Darien jungle has been constant for more than a decade, and it is the first time that Panama has stopped it, forced by the global health emergency.
« The pandemic has been a very difficult situation for all of us and more so for people who have their goal of circulating and reaching their destination and who have crossed one of the most dangerous jungles that one can think of crossing in conditions that have been very complicated » Santiago Paz, Head of Mission of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Panama, told The Associated Press.
Between 2015 and 2016, Panama faced a massive flow of Cubans who sought to reach the United States taking advantage of a policy of that country that favored them. This situation forced Central American nations to help transport migrants on part of their route.
At the beginning of last year there was a rebound in the flow of Haitians, Africans and Asians, which forced an agreement between Panama and Costa Rica to let them pass.
Most of the people now trapped in Panama left Haiti after the devastating earthquake a decade ago. Many went to Brazil and Chile where they managed to work and save money for the long and hard journey to North America.
« I am the only one in the family who left Haiti to look for work, » said Laurette.
In Lajas Blancas the migrants live in a grassy area on the banks of a brown river. Due to the new migratory wave registered at the beginning of 2019, a set of canvas tents with portable toilets were set up there. People squat down to prepare their food over wood fires.
Getting there from the town of Metetí, where the border police are based, involves a journey of half an hour or more in vehicles along a winding road.
« The problem always here is that we have many children, pregnant women, » said Bernadeau, who arrived in Darien after a road trip from Chile, where he lived for almost five years and managed to raise $ 4,000 for the journey. « Here we live as prisoners in jail. »
Migrants can move freely around the camp, but cannot leave because the entrances are guarded by the border police.
Jean Edoly, a 30-year-old Haitian, is in Lajas Blancas with his wife and their two daughters, ages 2 and 1, born in Chile. « They don’t feed us well, they feed us like dogs, » he complained.
Panama assures that it seeks to treat migrants humanely and has built, with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other organizations, a new camp in an area of Metetí, away from the settlers. There he will transfer 400 migrants in the coming days, especially families with young children. 30% of the migrants are minors, according to the government.
« Panama asks them to calm down, we have already spent more than six months, and what is left is little, there is already a light on the road, » said the Minister of Public Security of Panama, Juan Pino, during a recent tour to the place. « The transit of them, if everything goes well, can restart in a moment given that the sanitary norms (allow it) ».
Panama has so far reported more than 97,500 cases of coronavirus and 2,099 deaths. In recent weeks, infections have stabilized and deaths have decreased. The government announced a plan to allow the reopening of more economic activity and the lifting of mobility restrictions as of the second week of September.
Infections among migrants do not exceed 10 cases, according to Pino. In the camps, migrants go without masks and do not comply with social distancing.
In early August Panama proposed to Haitians a voluntary return home with the assistance and accompaniment of the IOM, but Minister Pino admitted that the majority do not want to return home.
« That is going to be impossible, » said Haitian Jean Edoly.
“We have a destination, we have a dream to fulfill … we left very far, we left Chile, we left the Dominican Republic, we left Brazil, Ecuador, Africa; we want to give a better life for our children, « he said.