Many African asylum-seekers who end up in Canada face an arduous, months-long journey through thousands of kilometres of jungle, along back roads and over water in small wooden boats.
Stays in migrant camps along the way often culminate with a lengthy period in a U.S. immigration detention centre.
It’s a modern underground railroad with organized networks of smugglers plotting paths through South and Central America to help — often for hefty fees — people fleeing Somalia, Ghana, Djibouti and other countries.
“The smugglers, right from Africa, they define the routes,” said Francisco Rico-Martinez of the FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto, a non-profit group that advocates for and provides support services to newcomers.
“They have contacts in Latin America and they define the routes. And they change the routes depending on how (government) policies change.”
Rico-Martinez recently visited Central America and saw the tide of migrants first-hand.
Mohammed, a 31-year-old refugee claimant from Ghana who did not want to reveal his last name, followed the underground railroad starting in July 2014. He flew to Brazil, then to Ecuador. Some South American countries do not require visas for short-term visitors.
Heading to the southern continent makes for a long, dangerous journey on the ground afterward, but it’s one of the few feasible starting points.
By bus and on foot, migrants follow a route north into their first big geographical hurdle — the Darien Gap on the border between Colombia and Panama. It’s a dense jungle and has no roads.
Mohammed said he skirted the jungle by going up the coast in a boat. He was crammed into a small wooden craft with several others and covered with a tarp for a seven-hour trip in the darkness.
“The boat is not a safe boat. It’s like a wood one with a small (engine) on the back,” he recalled recently.
“We are just risking our lives to save (them).”
Mohammed said he spent two days walking through the dense jungle in Panama afterward. Mamood, who left Ghana separately and now shares an apartment in Winnipeg with Mohammed and other recent arrivals, said he spent five days in that jungle.
Such stories are not unusual, said Rico-Martinez.
“There are guides in the jungle and they say, ‘OK, give me $20 each’ and they cross a section … in groups of 20, 25. Every time you see a guide, you have to pay.”
On the other side of the jungle, the Panamanian government provides a camp with food, shelter and medicine, Rico-Martinez said. Throughout Central American countries, migrants can travel relatively freely and can cover a lot of ground by bus — if they have money.
Nicaragua is an exception in that it has officially closed its border to migrants from outside the Central America region, Rico-Martinez said, but people are still managing to get in and then head through to Honduras.
Mohammed said he was detained a couple of times while travelling through Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, but was let go after a week or so. He also remembers having to walk throughout the night when he did not have money for a bus.
Some three months after leaving Ecuador, Mohammed said, he finally arrived at the Mexico-U.S. border south of San Diego to claim asylum. He was promptly put in a detention centre for 10 months.
He said his claim was denied and he moved to New York as the threat of deportation hung over his head.
He took a bus to Minneapolis and a cab to North Dakota, he said, and walked seven hours in the cold to the border community of Emerson-Franklin, Man. He walked into a hotel and slept on the hallway floor until a worker came by and called police.
It was more than two years after his journey started.