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Migrant Lives

Latin America's Migrants Trying To Reach The U.S.: Risk It All, Fail, Repeat

Searching for a safe home, many Latin American migrants are forced to try, time after time, getting turned away, and then risk everything again.

Photograph of thousands of migrants marching  to the US-Mexican border under the rain.

06 June 2022, Mexico, Tapachula: Thousands of migrants set off north on foot under the rain.

Daniel Diaz/ZUMA
Alejandra Pataro

BUENOS AIRES — With gangsters breathing down his neck, Maynor sold all of his possessions in Honduras, took his wife and three kids aged 11, 8 and 5, and set out northwards. He was leaving home for good, for the third time.

"I had to leave my country several times," he said, "but was deported." He was now trying to enter the U.S. again, but the family had become stuck in Mexico: "Things are really, really bad for us right now."

Migration in Latin America is no longer a linear process, taking migrants from one place to another. It goes in several directions. Certain routes will take you to one country as a stopover to another, but really, it's more a lengthy ordeal than a layover, and the winners are those who can find that receptive, welcoming community offering work and a better life.

The aid agency Doctors Without Borders (MSF) calls this an international, multidirectional phenomenon that may include recurring trips to and from a home country.

Marisol Quiceno, MSF's Advocacy chief for Latin America, told Clarín that migrants "are constantly looking for opportunities and for food security, dignified work opportunities (and) healthcare access." These are the "minimum basics of survival," she said, adding that people will keep looking if they did not find them the first time around.

Photograph of a woman and young child hanging clothing, as they wait for appointments at the Center on Global Justice being built at one of Tijuana's largest operational shelters\u200b.

June 21, 2023, Tijuana, Mexico: Many wait to get appointments for the Center on Global Justice being built at one of Tijuana's largest operational shelters.

Carlos A. Moreno/ZUMA

Why migrate?

Higher costs of living and increasing unemployment have made it harder for migrants to integrate into Latin American states, and made it difficult for them to restart lives in another country.

Quiceno says they are finding it hard to settle down in countries where they had been staying, and there is "no effective juridical or economic integration." She says people need to "understand the reasons for migration, the situations a person faces in an unknown country. Certain societies reject migrants, and they're turned away."

With an inflation rate of around 100%, Argentina has unleashed a new wave of migration, or remigration, of Venezuelans who came to the country to escape economic disaster at home.

As Venezuelans arrived in 2019, the U.S. dollar bought you 38 Argentine pesos, whereas today, the informal rate runs at around 700 pesos to the dollar. Some will try to reach Canada but for the most part, the chief destination is the U.S.

Haitians who were in Chile since 2010 also began to leave in 2021, citing rising joblessness and poverty, as well as hostility from locals and harsher immigration laws.

Photograph of asylum seekers scaling a hill between the US-Mexico border to reach the Mexican military.

May 12, 2023, San Diego, United States: Asylum seekers are seen scaling a hill between the US-Mexico border to reach the Mexican military.

Jon Putman/ZUMA

A dangerous — and often repeated — journey

In Latin America, three times is not an unusual number of migratory trips. It has become one of the world's leading regions in terms of displaced populations. The UN refugee agency's latest Global Trends report found that two out of every five asylum seekers in the world were from Latin America.

There's an increasing number of unaccompanied children and teenagers

UN data also shows that Latin America and the Caribbean are the most significant departure points for migrants heading to the U.S. and Canada (25.4 million), followed by Asia.

Their journeys and life histories are often harrowing. Mayner Rodríguez is a psychologist with a mobile MSF unit operating in Danlí and Trojes in Honduras.

She is familiar with the cases of people who leave their families to set out on a harsh trip that promises violence and possibly death. And the longer the trip, the greater its dangers.

She recalls the siblings whose parents died on the route, and who were left to survive as best they could. The older brother took the youngest with him, and had to abandon the middle one. "It was very sad, but they had no choice," she says.

Quiceno is particularly concerned by the increasing number of unaccompanied children and teenagers "traveling without their parents or other relatives or the care of any responsible adult."

Migrants face many challenges including theft, days without eating, sleeping in parks, walking hundreds of kilometers, and abuses and sexual violence.

José Rafael Cumare, a 38-year-old migrant from Venezuela, lived in Argentina for three years before leaving for the U.S. via the dangerous Darién Gap. He told MSF he had seen and heard "ugly things inside the forest."

Deciding to give it another try is not easy. Quiceno told Clarín that "people face uncertainty. They're not sure whether or not the situation has improved, and if it makes sense anymore to keep trying from where they are." Others, she recalled, said that they "feel a little ashamed having to tell their families and neighbors that they failed to find the dreams they had gone after."

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Longyearbyen Postcard: World's Northernmost Town Must Face Climate Change — And Russia

The melting of the sea ice in the Far North has accelerated in recent years. The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard has become the focal point of the environmental drama gripping the Arctic as well as the geopolitical tensions it is causing there, with Russia in particular.

A statue of a coal miner stands in the center of the photos with houses surronding it, draped around their shoudler is a Ukrainian flag. The environment is snowy and the sky is white from clouds.

A Ukraine flag placed on a statue of a coal miner in the center of Longyearbyen

Steffen Trumpf/dpa/ZUMA
Laura Berny

LONGYEARBYEN — The Longyearbreen glacier, which once unfurled to the sea, is now a shadow of its former self. Only the name of Longyearbyen’s Isfjorden now conveys the idea of something frozen.

“Last January, during the polar winter, the temperature was between 0 and 5 °C. When I went for a walk by the fjord, I could hear the waves. This was not the case before at this time of year,” says Heidi Sevestre. The French glaciologist fell in love with Svalbard as a student, so much so that she now lives here for part of the year.

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Compared to Siberia, Canada’s and Greenland’s High North – the Arctic archipelago, located just over a thousand kilometers from the North Pole – has historically benefited from a slightly more benign climate despite its extreme latitude. Temperatures here range between 5 °C and 15 °C in summer and usually not below -30 °C in the coldest of winter. This relatively “mild" weather has its origin in the Gulf Stream — the marine current which rises up from the Caribbean and runs along the west coast of Svalbard.

But the situation has now changed.

“There has been a lot of talk about the rise in atmospheric temperature for at least 20 years. But in the past three years, ocean temperatures have also risen significantly. This is what is causing the increasingly rapid retreat of the ice pack,” explains Jean-Charles Gallet, a glaciologist who has worked at the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) since 2010.

“The sea ice acts like an air conditioner for the ocean, so the more it decreases, the more the ocean warms up. This causes a chain reaction which ends up accelerating the warming process,” adds Eero Rinne, a Finnish specialist on the topic and a researcher at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS). Rinne is working on the CRISTAL sea ice satellite mission, slated to go live in 2028 as part of the European Space Agency’s Copernicus program.

Beyond the alarming disappearance of glaciers and ice packs and the threat to polar bears (of which there are still around 300 in the archipelago), global warming is also causing cracks in the infrastructure of the territory, which is covered by permafrost. Landslides are increasingly frequent, and all recently constructed buildings in the region are on stilts.

“It used to rain very little in Svalbard, but now it is getting wetter and wetter, which is weakening the soil,” explains Hanne Hvidtfeldt Christiansen, a Danish-Norwegian scientist and specialist on permafrost at UNIS.

Norwegians kept a low profile about Svalbard's growing crisis, until 2017. That was the year when the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was flooded, less than 10 years after its foundation. The facility, dug near a mine in Longyearbyen, the capital of the archipelago, was built to preserve more than a million seeds from a possible cataclysm. The disaster didn’t affect the seeds but left a scar in people’s minds. Even this close to the pole, permafrost is thawing.

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