Warning: This article contains details that some readers may find disturbing.
Pediatrician Yesenia Williams was so shocked by what she saw at the immigrant reception center north of the Darien region, which separates Panama and Colombia, that she couldn’t talk about it — not even with her colleagues.
“I didn’t expect so much suffering and hardship,” she recalls.
During nine days working in a makeshift clinic in the Panamanian city of San Vicente, she and her colleagues treated hundreds of exhausted migrants who walked through the dense forests between Colombia and Panama.
Hearing their stories, the doctors got a glimpse of the struggle to survive on what has been described as the most insidious part of the world’s most dangerous immigration route, which people cross in the hope of finding sanctuary in the United States.
It was the circumstances of the children who crossed the crossing that moved Williams the most. Some were so dehydrated that their eyes looked sunken.
She remembers that there were no tears when they cried. The others were so confused that they couldn’t remember their names.
“They saw things they shouldn’t have seen,” says the pediatrician, of the violence and abuse the migrants experienced in transit.
Spread over 575,000 hectares of dense rainforest, the Darien region forms a natural barrier between South America and Central America.
There are no paved roads, no turn signals, to help traverse this lawless land, where looting and rape are rampant.
Despite the dangers, an increasing number of migrants are crossing the 97-kilometre route on foot, between swamps and mountains – which can take more than a week.
An estimated 133,000 immigrants crossed Darien Forest in 2021. Of this total, 30,000 were children. Many of the people making the perilous road are families from Haiti, Cuba and Venezuela, but Williams says she has seen children arriving alone.
In the nine days the doctors spent in San Vicente, they treated about 500 migrants who crossed and interviewed 70 of them in detail.
Handing over children to strangers
Dr. Jose Antonio Suarez, the team’s infectious disease specialist, recalls how he looked after a 60-year-old Venezuelan man who was traveling with two children aged four and five.
Many Venezuelans make the dangerous crossing through the Panamanian jungle – Photo: Getty Images
The doctor thought they were the descendants of the immigrant, but said they were not his family. He said the children’s mother was a Haitian woman he met in the woods and asked him to take them to San Vicente because she no longer had the strength to walk.
“The degree of despair is so great that a parent can hand their child over to a stranger,” Suarez explains.
Horrific news of deaths at the crossing
Panamanian epidemiologist Roderick Chin Camanyo, who has experience working with indigenous communities in the jungle, thought he was prepared for what he would find in the makeshift clinic.
“I didn’t think I’d see anything again,” he says, then recalls a Venezuelan immigrant who burst into tears when he said what he saw during his trip.
The man claims he was part of a group of migrants climbing the mountain range separating Colombia and Panama when a Haitian woman collapsed. What happened next affected the Venezuelan.
According to the immigrant, as soon as her husband realized that she was dead, he threw one of the children off the rock. He remembers trying to stop the desperate Haitian from doing the same to his other son, but to no avail.
Finally, the Venezuelan immigrant told the doctor that he was also unable to stop the Haitian man from jumping into the void.
The BBC was not able to independently confirm the migrant’s account, but figures from the International Organization for Migration indicate that dozens of migrants die each year while crossing the Darien region.
Crossing infected water
Yesenia Williams says it is frustrating to see that her team was able to do only the bare minimum in the temporary clinic, relieving some of the symptoms without dealing with their causes.
“We only see a small part of the migration experience,” the doctor reflects. But Jose Antonio Suarez, who is from Venezuela, is happy to be able to provide at least some help to his countrymen.
José Antonio Suarez is pleased to be able to do his part to help – Image: Gorgas Institute via BBC
Most of the migrants who crossed the Darien region last year were from Haiti, but Venezuelans are in the majority in 2022. Many of them have left Venezuela in recent years amid the country’s economic crisis, trying to make a living in other countries. South American countries.
But the strict lockdowns imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic have made it even more difficult for these migrants. Many of them are now heading north in search of new opportunities.
One of the Venezuelan patients that Suárez examined in the clinic developed unusual skin irritation on his feet and legs.
Patients arrive in San Vicente, Panama, with rashes on their legs – Photo: Gorgas Institute via BBC
These red, itchy lesions reminded the 67-year-old doctor of something he hadn’t seen since he was a teenager, when he visited Lake Onari in his native Venezuela.
Suarez diagnosed the immigrant and more than 20 other people who arrived soon after with chin dermatitis, also called swimmer’s itch. It is caused by parasitic larvae released by snails.
The small larvae penetrate the skin of the swimmers, causing a rash. They die, but the more the patient scratches the affected area, the worse the irritation gets, since the affected skin can easily become infected with bacteria.
But one dr. Suarez, pediatrician Rosella Obando, notes that many adults are irritable, while children do not appear to be. And speaking to immigrants, they found out why.
Parents often carry their children to prevent them from drifting in rivers – Image: Getty Images via BBC
The adults became infected while crossing the many waterways that cut through the Darien area, but the children were rescued because their parents held them on their laps to avoid being swept away by the current.
Irritation rarely causes complications, but Suarez warns that drinking water infested with parasites can have serious consequences.
The doctor explains that migrants who cross the Darien area often have no choice. Carrying water bottles will be a huge burden on your trek, drinking water from maggot infested rivers causes gastritis and not drinking water causes dehydration.
All the specialists of the clinic found a particularly fascinating story.
Biologist Yamelka Diaz says she decided to work in the Darien district after meeting Delicia, a five-year-old girl who was found next to her mother’s body in the middle of the woods.
Delicia was transferred to the institute where Díaz worked to run blood tests to identify tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.
When Diaz asked Delicia what she remembers, she only said that her family had “taken her by the river.”
The biologist says the interest in immigrants has changed her life and made her notice milder topics, such as the increasing cost of living, with greater clarity.
“She sees everything differently,” says Diaz, who left the makeshift clinic barefoot after giving her shoes to an immigrant whose shoes had a fungus.
– This text was originally published in https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/internacional-62686752
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