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Refugees trekking to US stymied as pandemic shuts borders

This is the first time authorities have halted the trekking masses for an international health emergency.

Staff Writers
2 minute read

Duperat Laurette fled Haiti after her country’s massive 2010 earthquake.

She travelled through the Dominican Republic, then Chile, and five years later to Panama, all with the dream of reaching the US and finding a job to help support her 14 siblings left behind in Haiti.

Coronavirus has finally stopped her.

Panama, the slender bottleneck between the North and South American continents, closed its borders on March 16 to halt the spread of Covid-19.

Nearly 2,000 migrants from Haiti, and African and Asian countries are stuck in camps in the jungle along Panama’s borders, reports AP.

Laurette, 45, and her husband arrived at the Panamanian border with Colombia seven months ago. There are no opportunities for work in the jungle, and she and her husband have exhausted their money.

“I was very ill and they brought me to the hospital to operate, but they never did,” she said. “They told me there was no space for my operation, the hospital is full of Covid-19 patients.

“But I’m still sick. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Still, the couple have rejected Panama’s offers of free flights home.

They, like most migrants in Panama, say they know the US has effectively suspended its asylum process, but they want to keep heading there anyway.

The flow of migrants through the dense and dangerous Darien jungle has been going strong for years.

This is the first time authorities have halted the trekking masses for an international health emergency.

Panama’s government says it is providing migrants with humanitarian support. It has built a new camp with better shelter where it hopes to soon move 400 migrants, especially families with young children.

Jean Edoly, a 30-year-old Haitian, stuck at the border with his wife and two children, ages two and one, who were born in Chile, is not impressed.

“They don’t feed us well. We’re fed like dogs,” he said.

Public Security Minister Juan Pino said during a recent visit to the area, “The Panamanian government asks all migrants to remain calm. We’ve already made it through six months. Light can be seen at the end of the tunnel.”

Panama has reported more than 92,000 infections and 2,000 deaths from Covid-19. In recent weeks, infections have been stabilising and deaths declining.

In the camps, migrants do not wear masks or practise social distancing, but Pino claimed there have been no more than 10 infections among them.

Panama proposed free flights back to Haiti in early August with support from the International Organization for Migration. But most migrants were not interested, Pino said.

Edoly dismisses that option as “impossible”.

“We have a dream to realise,” he said. “We want to give our children a better life.”