“They chained us and didn’t tell us what was happening. I don’t know where to go now. I’m so overwhelmed,” said Leonardo as he broke into tears when we spoke in the Amparito shelter in Villahermosa, Tabasco, a city in southeastern Mexico with a long history of receiving migrants from Central America and Venezuelans who arrived here in the late 2000s to work in the oil business. He had been staying there since Sunday, October 15th, right after he arrived in the city.
Last week, when the announcement of the Biden administration’s new humanitarian parole program was accompanied by a measure to expel all Venezuelans seeking asylum on the border, there was a lot of discussion about the impact that this would have on the thousands of migrants trying to reach the U.S. However, discussing it in theory is vastly different from hearing the experiences of those affected by it.
Leonardo’s recollection of events is hazy. His two uncles, his cousin, and him surrendered voluntarily to U.S. authorities at the border in El Paso. After that, they were moved through multiple facilities. He described tents, warehouses, and offices. The one thing in common through all of them was all the anguish of not being informed of what was going on. He remembers getting both his picture and his fingerprints taken and, shortly after being handcuffed and shackled, he was separated from his family.
His uncles and his cousin were sent to Matamoros, Tamaulipas, in the north of the country and he ended up in Villahermosa, in the south. Leonardo isn’t his real name, but a pseudonym used for his safety (it’s also the case with Miguel, the other interviewed migrant) but his story is real and testament to the fact that Venezuelan migration to Mexico has changed and recent changes in U.S. migratory policy on Venezuelans is going to vastly impact both migrants and the organizations trying to help them.
“We’re overwhelmed. I’m overwhelmed and I want to go home,” Leonardo said. “I don’t want to spend Christmas by myself.”
Just like him, large numbers of migrants find themselves stuck being sent to locations around Mexico and deeply confused by the measures’ lack of specificity. An October 19th report by the National Institute of Migration stated that 15 municipalities including Mexicali, Hermosillo, Reynosa, Tuxtla Gutierrez, Tapachula and several other states are already overcrowded. Many of those returned don’t have a passport, so no way to legally return to Venezuela and are severely limited as to where they can travel by land. There was even a reported riot in a migratory station in Tijuana. Leonardo’s family has been supporting him financially through remittances, he mentioned he thought he had enough money to buy a plane ticket, and if he needed more, they would be willing to help him, but he doesn’t know whether it was legally possible to return without a passport.
Numbers are expected to increase as more migrants continue to be turned away. I heard a similar sentiment from Miguel, who also arrived at the Amparito Shelter. The overarching feeling is fatigue and disappointment. He was appalled with the harsh treatment of public officials through the journey, especially in the U.S. “Where is the U.S.’ humanitarian example? They are not fulfilling who they claim to be. Nobody told us anything and treated us as if we weren’t human. I’m just a farmer. I just wanted to work enough so that I could go back to Venezuela and harvest enough food for my family and maybe for our neighbors. Now, the only reward we get is our suffering.”
Both men are no older than 35 and are part of a cohort of over 100 Venezuelans, mostly men, who are receiving help in Amparito, a shelter that has a reputation of not leaving anyone behind and supporting migrants and refugees with food, shelter, legal and psychological assistance. The demographics of this group are quite different from what Venezuelan migration to Mexico has been in the past.
Evelyn Bernal, the Mexico co-leader of R4V, the Interagency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants co-led by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to support Venezuelan migrants and refugees, explained in an interview last week that since 2018 and up until the beginning of the pandemic, the profile of migrants was vastly different. “It was a middle-class profile that arrived in Mexico directly from Venezuela.” She later explained: “They were people who sold their properties and arrived with some networks and knowledge in Mexico, and Mexico was their final destination.” Now, things have changed. “We’ve noticed an increase in men traveling alone,” says Bernal. “People who are leaving countries where they didn’t have a good economic integration or faced xenophobia, that are returning from countries like Ecuador to Venezuela, in many cases to leave their young children behind and begin a second migratory movement to the United States.”
This sounds very similar to the story of Miguel. He left Venezuela five years ago because of the harsh economic conditions and immigrated to Colombia with his wife and his daughter. At first, they were able to somewhat improve their economic conditions, but as xenophobia started to negatively impact their economic and social integration, they found themselves again in precariety, so he decided to take the journey to the U.S. while wife and daughter remained in Colombia.
Both the profile and volume of migrants changed. Josep Herreros, Protection Representative of UNHCR in Mexico, noted a massive increase in the number of Venezuelan migrants. He said to Caracas Chronicles that, before the pandemic, only a few requested to be recognized as refugees: “We’re talking about a median of about 5,000-6,000 annually.” The visa requirements for Venezuelans to enter Mexico, Herreros explained, forced people to arrive by land through the southern border, mostly through Tapachula, Chiapas, and Tenosique, Tabasco. Yet, the numbers are vastly different this year. Herreros commented: “From January until today, there have been 8,967 people requesting to be recognized as refugees.” Last year the number was a total of 6,220, an increase corresponding only to the number of people who are trying to remain in Mexico, who are nowhere near the majority, given that most people are in transit towards the United States.
The same report by the National Institute of Migration registered that over 35,562 Venezuelan migrants entered Mexico in the last year trying to reach the United States, an increase of more than 2,939%. Alejandra Conde, incidence coordinator in La 72, a shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco, one of the cities with the highest number of entries via land, said to Caracas Chronicles she believes in those numbers, and added that most Venezuelans they have interacted with were in transit. “Most Venezuelans in La 72 stayed one day, two days, and continued their journey north. We only had one woman and a family stay here in Mexico. Even last week, they were all in a rush and talked about rumors of the border closing and their intent to get there before that measure became a reality.”
Alejandro Álvarez, the coordinator of the shelter where I met Leonardo and Miguel, shared a similar story. However, as the arrival of the upcoming large wave approaches, Álvarez is very concerned about the capacity of his shelter and many other similar institutions to keep up. They received the news at the same time as everyone else but Amparito is working hard to be able to help as many people as possible. By the time we visited, it was nearly at capacity.
Leaving Darien Behind
What’s particularly devastating is that the vast majority of these migrants have just recently undergone the experience of traveling through the Darien Gap, the infamous dense jungle region between Colombia and Panama that has become the symbol of the latest wave of Venezuelan migrants. According to recent R4V data, 97% of migrants claim that this region is the most dangerous of their journey. Over 70% reported injuries; a little less than 50% reported robberies; less than a third reported physical violence and around a fifth reported having witnessed death.
“In the journey, people lose their spirit and by the time they arrive at a place like this, they are living dead,” says Miguel.
“These measures were not taken by a rational person, they were just brash responses. They said ‘close the border and let them all die.’ There are mothers going through Darien. There are children just like my daughter, and when I imagine her silently crying, as the children cried when I saw them there, my heart breaks.”
These stories are shared by many more Venezuelans who are traveling through the jungle. According to Colombian authorities, only in August, 31,055 migrants crossed through the Darien Gap. Panamanian authorities say that approximately 23,000 of them were Venezuelans. Under its humanitarian parole system the United States will accept roughly the same amount of people that crossed the Darien in a month. As Miguel said, “they threw the problem to seven other countries.”
The coming weeks will be a challenge like no other for the organizations trying to support migrants and refugees. However, there are people working tirelessly to be able to increase the robustness of the system to support migrants and refugees. For years, the UNHCR has been closely working with COMAR, the government agency in charge of the process of refugee recognition, to increase its capacity. According to Josep Herreros from the UNHCR: “We have done a lot of work with them so that they have the capacity and human resources to process the increase in claims.” In addition, they’ve developed relationships with over 100 shelters in Mexico and have programs to relocate migrants and refugees to other cities where they can find better economic opportunities. This helps Venezuelans as well as migrants from all over the world.
The IOM and the R4V platform also continue to play an important role. Evelyn Bernal emphasized the organization’s role on water and healthcare: “We have been strengthening shelters in the southern border so that they all can provide quality water and a safe place to stay, and have even covered medical costs or paid for medical exams.” All of this happens in conjunction with efforts to support economic integration that include entrepreneurial training for migrants, masterclasses in collaboration with Monterrey Technological University and even awarding capital to migrant-started businesses that go through their programs.
The Amparito shelter is an example of all of this. Alejandro says that the UNHCR has been instrumental in the growth and operation of the shelter, and they are in constant communication with him. They cover operational costs, even the construction of some areas in the shelter. The IOM currently covers the cost of food and has provided water tanks and sanitation equipment. The shelter is collaborating with local organizations and members of the community and is collecting mattresses, supplies, and medicine. Álvarez says that they are going to do whatever it takes to help, despite the challenges.
Other organizations like Asylum Access, which provides free legal assistance to migrants and refugees throughout all their process, and ChildFund, which assists children, are heavily involved in this and many other shelters. These kinds of collaborative schemes are in place around many other places like Amparito in Mexico.
By the time I said goodbye to Leonardo and Miguel and thanked Alejandro for allowing us to visit, another man had arrived. He talked to one of the staff members in the shelter and said “Is this Amparito? I’m Venezuelan and I need help.” They quickly gave him water, warmly greeted him, and started to help him.
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