The forgotten

Improvised boats are the informal way to cross the Guatemala-Mexico border in Ciudad Hidalgo, near Tapachula, Mexico, on August 08, 2017. People go and comeback in these boats for around $2 a ride. (Photo by Andrea Arzaba)

African and Haitian migrants at the Emmanuel Christian Church in Tijuana, Mexico, on 23 March of 2017. It served as an improvised shelter for a wave of migrants that went through the border city. (Photo by Estefani Gonzalez)

Migrants living at the Juventud 2000 Shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, on 23 March of 2017. Father Chema ran the improvised shelter for the wave of migrants that went through the city. (Photo by Estefani Gonzalez)

Ali sits in a coffee shop in downtown Tapachula, Mexico’s southernmost city. He is clean cut and eloquent, with short curly hair and big expressive eyes. Originally from Somalia, and the proud holder of a BA in Business from a prestigious college in Ethiopia, he explains how he used a network of smugglers to travel 6,500 km all the way from São Paulo, Brazil, to this town on the Mexico-Guatemala border.

After his father and his brother were killed in a terrorist attack, he feared for his own life and decided to flee his country. Two years later, in Uganda, he claims he was abducted and tortured, before escaping to Kenya and then Zambia. But after years of trying to settle, he gave up: he knew he had to leave Africa.

“I was desperate,” he explains. ”And someone that worked at the Brazilian embassy in Lusaka told me that for several thousand dollars he would expedite my visa faster. I took his offer, and he gave me a genuine visa in days.”

Traveling alongside a number of African and Asian migrants, Ali has traversed the continent in an attempt to reach the United States.

“First, I paid someone to find me a smuggler in Brazil. He charged me $600 to connect me to a network of smugglers that would take me all the way to Mexico,” said Ali, adding that each smuggler belonging to the network would come and pick him up in a specific location, sometimes with food and drink, and take him and other migrants to a town further north.

From there, a new smuggler would come and the pattern would repeat. All of the smugglers he met had his picture – that is how they recognized and trusted him. Every time he was handed over to a new smuggler he would have to pay $50 to $600 for their services, a fee which did not include payments to cross rivers, ride on dusty buses, or the bribes they had to pay to organized crime gangs, the military, and to corrupt police and migration officers that they came across en route.

Migrants are vulnerable to being mistreated during the smuggling process and the conditions that they are made to endure are often severe. When they realize the situation they are in, some migrants try and turn back, but they are often forced to continue with the journey. “In Peru I was caught by the police. Once in their offices, they asked me for money. Sixty dollars. I was refusing to pay and they told me that it was either my money or my freedom. I ended giving them all of my money,” said Ali.

His is just one story revealing how profit-seeking smugglers are ferrying people across borders and between continents by providing them with fake documentation, by bribing authorities and making them hike through extremely dangerous regions like the Darien Gap, on the Colombia-Panama border. Taking advantage of migrants desperate to leave their countries smugglers are searching out new business opportunities as the old routes to Europe become increasingly complicated. What’s more, they know migrants are willing to take risks in search of a better life when they cannot access legal channels of migration even if it means being smuggled thousands of miles and across several national boundaries.

Tapachula might be a forgotten border , but it has become a new passing place for migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Somalia, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and many more countries that want to reach the US or Canada: a “ciudad de paso” for those that want to go north.

In this bustling border town, migrants are key for certain unregulated businesses. Hotel owners where migrants stay charge them money for other services such as buying plane tickets or for money transfers via Western Union or Moneygram.

Ravi, a 25-year-old migrant from India, has been traveling for almost a year and hopes to get to California, where he has family. He is staying in a cheap and dark hotel in 8th Street, alongside the Bangladeshi, Indian, Haitian, and Cuban restaurants that have popped up to serve the migrants newly arrived in town.

In order to pay for the smugglers that took him all the way to Tapachula, he relied on loans from family in California and back in India, receiving money every three or four weeks. While he speaks, he keeps checking his phone: “This is the most precious tool I have, it allows me to talk to tell my family I am safe,” he explains.

A couple of blocks away, he introduces me to Sadek, a young businessman who opened a small “fonda”, or home food restaurant called Bangladesh. The walls are green and there’s a big patio out the back. Sadek has been living in Tapachula for five years. He understands Spanish perfectly, but he speaks with difficulty having only learnt ”from Mexicans in the streets”. He asks some Bangladeshi clients if they want “rotti and yogurt”, which he translates as “tortilla y danone” to the cook.  His restaurant has become a comfort place for Asian migrants: when clients cannot pay, he let’s them eat on credit and has a notebook where he writes what everyone owns him.

Life has not always been easy here, says Sadek. Every now and then a police officer comes asking for 50 pesos ($2.50) to “take care of the restaurant” at night. He laughs, but says he pays them because that is not much compared to the money he earns. Unlike those headed north, Sadek has decide to stay in Tapachula, at least for now. He sees a good business opportunity here, and says that he might even find a Mexican woman to marry.

In 2016, as many as 20,000 Haitians and African migrants are believe to have passed through the northern Mexican border town of Tijuana, according ot the National Migration Institute, scores of them funneled through southern crossings in places like Tapachula and Tabasco.

Many reported wanting to reach the United States but others stopped en route. Some were fearful of a tougher immigration regime in the US, others were stayed by the fear of begin deported back to Haiti.

“When it happened, we had no support from the government. No funds, nothing,” says Father Canaveral, a Jesuit priest who runs a centre supporting migrants in Tapachula. “If that happened again, we would not be ready.”

Yadira de los Santos, the director of Migration and International Policy of the city council, says there is still a lot to be done. “We need a comprehensive analysis of how many migrants have crossed in the city, and from those, how many stayed in Tapachula”, she says.

However, as the Mexico-Guatemala border is wide and has many points where illegal “balseros” cross people and all types of goods for less than $5 for a five minute trip, it is hard to keep track of who comes and goes, and when.

“They bring
income to
the city.”

African and Haitian migrants stayed on the floor with sleeping bags and card boards at the Emmanuel Christian Church in Tijuana, Mexico, on 27 March of 2017.The shelter closed a couple of months later. (Photo by Estefani Gonzalez)

A Haitian child at the Juventud 2000 Shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, on 26 March of 2017. (Photo by Estefani Gonzalez)

African and Haitian migrants living at the improvised Juventud 2000 Shelter in Tijuana Mexico. (Photo by Estefani Gonzalez)

The spotlight

African and Haitian migrants at the Emmanuel Christian Church in Tijuan