WorldThe silent exodus of Haitians in Latin America

The silent exodus of Haitians in Latin America

More information

Haitian migration has been roaming Latin America for a decade and has once again become visible in an inhospitable place: the wild frontier between Colombia and Panama. Thousands of stranded migrants in the region have turned the Colombian municipality of Necoclí into a veritable funnel before entering the strip of land through the Darién Buffer, from where they travel northwards across Central America — with the United States in the role of desired destination and Mexico as a new welcoming territory for the Caribbean exodus. The crisis of unprecedented numbers has highlighted the pilgrimage of a population that crosses the continent, while Haiti, their country of origin, continues to plunge into yet another peak of instability after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

Colombian and Panamanian authorities agree that their countries are only transit zones. Even so, although the number of Haitians on this border is small compared, for example, to the Venezuelan diaspora (which is counted in the millions), it constitutes a steady stream of tens of thousands of irregular migrants arriving not from the Caribbean but from the south. from the continent, mainly from Brazil and Chile; these are the two countries to which the Haitians headed after the 2010 earthquake. On this risky route through the Darién, considered one of the most dangerous jungles in the world, they are accompanied, albeit in a smaller number, by Cubans, Asians and Africans, which configures the so-called “extracontinental migration”.

Migrants arrive from the porous border with Ecuador, a phenomenon that Colombia’s immigration authorities say is not recent: on the contrary, it is a historic flow, which at peak times has already had more than 35,000 people in the same year of crossing. However, even though it is not a new fact, they recognize that the current numbers are “alarming”, far surpassing the precedents. Since the beginning of 2021, Panamanian authorities have registered the passage of 46,000 people across the border, with 18,000 in July alone. More than 20,000 of these individuals are Haitians, by far the first place on the list, followed by 8,000 Cubans. But the proportion is actually higher: in the records there are 1,500 Brazilian citizens and almost 3,000 Chileans who, in fact, are the children of Haitians born in those countries where the first waves of the post-earthquake exodus left. In many cases, these are children under 11 years of age.

The dense Panamanian jungle has a dry season, which lasts from October to March, but it is rainy for the rest of the year. Migrants often cross Darién in the dry season to avoid additional dangers such as flooding rivers and muddy terrains, as Santiago Paz, from Panama, of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) explains. “This year, even during the rainy season we are in, flows continue to grow,” says Paz.

migratory earthquake

Although instability is recurrent in Haiti —the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere— the exodus has a clear trigger: the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010. Since then, Haitians have been emigrating to South America, in particular to Brazil —which at that time was hungry for labor to build the infrastructure for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. They arrived in the country mainly through the states of Acre and Amazonas. By August 2020, there were more than 143,000, with a strong presence in São Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul. Most obtained permanent residence for humanitarian reasons, becoming one of the largest communities of immigrants and refugees. They would only be surpassed in 2018 by Venezuelans.

The pandemic, however, reduced this flow: without job opportunities and faced with stagnant economies, many tried to move to other countries, bringing down the number of applications for residence and refuge, according to data from the Immigration Department of the Ministry of Justice of Brazil. In 2020, 6,613 asylum requests were registered, 40% less than in the previous year.

Chile, with a dynamic economy — at least in macroeconomic numbers — has become the destiny of many Haitians. But over the past decade, Haitians who emigrated to the Andean country have also begun to abandon their destination towards the north. Although there is no official data, Carlos Figueroa, from the Jesuit Service for Migrants (SJM), confirms the new trend: “We have been talking to organizations in Chile and elsewhere in Latin America. Reports by the Government of Panama indicate that 76% of the Haitian population that arrives in Panamanian territory comes from Chile. It’s a fact,” says Figueroa, who works to promote the dignity and rights of migrants and refugees.

This trend can be seen in the Haitian community itself. Jean Claude Pierre-Paul, a Haitian social worker who arrived in Chile in 2008 —before the massive entry of his compatriots in 2014-2015—, says that some “are heading to the borders of Mexico and the United States. They make a route through Chile, Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Panama, Guatemala and Honduras, until they reach Mexico”. Pierre-Paul, human rights activist and member of the Haiti-Chile Reflection Space, denounces that today migrants take three to four years to obtain a permanent visa in the country. “In Chile, no other state institution takes so long to respond to a request,” he says.

According to official data, more than 1.4 million foreigners reside in Chile. The Haitian community represents 12.5%, in third place on the list, just after the Venezuelan (30.7%) and the Peruvian (16.3%). According to the Jesuit Service for Migrants, the number of Haitians who left the country exceeds the number who entered both in 2019 and 2020 and in the first four months of 2021. It is something that has not been seen since 2010.

Support news production like this. Subscribe to EL PAÍS for 30 days for 1 US$

Click here

Sociologist María Emilia Tijoux, an academic at the University of Chile, says that for years foreigners have found their country an interesting place to live, but now “there are people who are leaving because the country generates fear,” according to interviews carried out by her group. work and information from the Haitian community itself. For Tijoux, “Chilean society in general negatively evaluates migrants” and “the Haitian community was especially punished and subjected to all kinds of ill-treatment and abuse”. Those who stay, says the expert, “know that they must resist a national and racist way of being,” she says.

According to Figueroa, among the factors that hinder the inclusion of Haitians in Chilean society are discrimination, difficulties in getting decent work —usually supported by precarious jobs compared to citizens of other nationalities— and problems in regularizing documentation. The latter is one of the most problematic: the government asks for a certificate of criminal record, a record that is especially difficult for Haitians to obtain.

The new migratory flow to the north also appears to be spurred on by friends and relatives who talk about the benefits of living in developed countries like the US and Canada. But nobody talks about the enormous risks of the journey: in addition to thousands of kilometers of road, it is possible to encounter armed groups and human trafficking, not to mention the several days walking in a humid jungle infested with animals and insects. The IOM prepares a regional campaign in Creole language with the words “parle verite” (or “tell the truth”), with testimonies that warn about the real dangers faced in the crossing.

The route to Darién, between Colombia and Panama, is the bottleneck through which, sooner or later, the majority of migrants of Haitian origin who travel to the United States pass. As the onset of the pandemic lags behind, irregular traffic across the border has recovered to reach the level of 300 arrests a day. Of the more than 28,000 counted since January 1, about 20,000 are from Haiti, in addition to 8,000 from Cuba. In addition, as is shown, a good part of those who transit from South America (Brazil or Chile) are of Haitian origin. And more and more minors come into the account.

In January 2021, only 204 minors were identified in irregular transit through Darién. In February, there were already 364. In July, however, the figure approached the 3,000 mark. More than 20% of irregular passersby are minors, reproducing a complex pattern already observed in other Latin American borders, especially the Mexican ones.

Mexico, a new destination

On the increasingly difficult path to reach the United States, Mexico is becoming a new destination. According to statistics from the Commission for Aid to the Refugees of Mexico (Comar), at the end of July 13,253 Haitians requested asylum. The number adds to the more than 1,700 people registered in the statistics as Chileans and more than 1,000 as Brazilians; in both cases, they are children of Haitians born in the two South American countries.

“We think that by the end of the year we will have impressive figures involving Haitians,” Andrés Ramírez, head of Comar, tells EL PAÍS. “I thought that with the assassination of the president [Jovenel] Moise would have a large outflow of Haitians. But the people who keep arriving in Mexico don’t arrive from Haiti. They are the ones that were in Chile and Brazil. With the resources they obtained after spending several years working and living there, they are more likely to be able to leave and head north, all while the Brazilian economy and the situation in Chile have worsened”, he explains.

In 2019, Mexico ceased to be almost exclusively a transit country for migrants to the US, becoming a host nation as well. By 2021, Mexican authorities hope to surpass the unprecedented figure of 100,000 asylum requests, something Ramírez attributes to Washington’s more restrictive policies in recent years and to the support networks they are establishing for migrants in Mexico. Haitians are the second nationality of origin among those who most ask for protection, surpassed only by Hondurans.

According to Dana Graeber, head of the IOM mission in Mexico, many have family members or friends already established in the country, although the US remains the ultimate goal for most of them. Graeber’s organization began to detect an increase in the arrival of Haitians in May, when “fewer border restrictions coincided with a slightly more positive outlook. [para os migrantes] by the arrival of the administration of [Joe] Biden” and the worsening situation in the countries where they were living in recent years.

Mexico became a destination country for Haitians in 2017. In late 2016, Washington revoked a deportation exemption for migrants from that country. The measure, established after the 2010 earthquake, prevented the expulsion of Haitians who arrived undocumented. This has left many stranded on Mexico’s northern border, especially in Tijuana, where a large Haitian community has established itself and is finding employment opportunities in industry. However, this year Comar reports the unprecedented arrival of Haitians seeking refuge on the southern border, more precisely in Tapachula, Chiapas, the poorest state in Mexico and with the least capacity to receive this population. “The situation is very difficult because the hostels are either closed or have low capacity. And everyone is saturated,” explains Graeber. Another critical puzzle in Latin America.

sign up here to receive EL PAÍS Brasil’s daily newsletter: reports, analyses, exclusive interviews and the main information of the day in your e-mail, from Monday to Friday. sign up also to receive our weekly newsletter on Saturdays, with highlights of coverage for the week.