Original article published in Blogue un seul monde
Straddling the border between Peru and Bolivia, the small town of Desaguadero does not attract the crowds of tourists like some of its neighbors around Lake Titicaca. We can find there some restaurants and, on Tuesdays and Fridays, a feria where the clothing merchants jostle, but without more. And at an altitude of more than 3800 meters above sea level, the nights are often freezing.
However, one can meet people from Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti, Guinea, Senegal, Eritrea, India and Sierra Leone.
Desaguadero is an important crossing point for migrants who cross Bolivia from Brazil or Chile to Peru and then on to the north, with the aim of reaching the United States or Canada. If migration from South American countries to North America is not a new phenomenon, the so-called extra-continental migration, that is to say, the migratory flows of people from countries outside the Americas, is a phenomenon that has grown enormously over the last ten years in the South American continent. Among these migrants, Haitians are among the most numerous, and their particular situation exposes them to all kinds of problems and abuses.
In the streets of La Paz, El Alto and other large Bolivian cities, one can see many migrants of Venezuelan origin. They can enter Bolivia without needing a visa and benefit from a certain leniency from the authorities. In addition, given the magnitude of Venezuelan migration to the continent, many humanitarian organizations have set up projects specifically to help them in recent years. The situation of these people is not easy (the clemency of the authorities is relative), but it is at least known and recognized.
Extracontinental migration, a particular challenge
For Haitian nationals, the circumstances are quite different. As part of my work with CECI Bolivia, I conducted a survey on the situation of Haitian migrants who cross the country, in order to better understand their needs and the challenges they face while in Bolivia. It was extremely difficult to meet these people in Bolivia, despite many efforts. The same observation was made when I visited migrant aid organizations in the region of La Paz: Haitian migrants almost never call on their services and resist any attempt to approach them. However, I was able to see for myself that in the city of Desaguadero alone, between 10 and 40 Haitians board buses every day heading to Lima to continue to the North, which would represent at least 5,000 people per year. With the situation in Haiti deteriorating by the day, it would be more than surprising if this migratory flow were to decrease in the coming months.
The vulnerability of these people and the precariousness of their situation make it difficult to establish a relationship of trust with them. All of them fear prison or deportation, and are therefore reluctant to answer questions about the conditions of their passage and to engage in discussion. Moreover, the coyotes (smugglers) are always around and do not look kindly on the presence of humanitarian organizations.
Indeed, since it is difficult, if not impossible, for Haitian migrants to enter Bolivia legally, they are forced to use smugglers even before crossing the border. Easily identifiable by their mother tongue and ethnic origin, these people must hide, traveling at night in uncomfortable and unsafe transportation, without adequate food, without decent sanitation facilities. And, above all, without any recourse in case of problems.
Irregular migration, tenfold danger
The passage in Bolivia for a person in irregular situation presents many dangers. For those who are not prepared, the cold and the altitude of the Bolivian Altiplano can be very dangerous, especially if one climbs from the eastern plains of the country quickly and without acclimatizing. But it is above all the lack of legal status that is the source of the greatest challenges. As one migrant I met on the Peruvian side of the city of Desaguadero explained to me, during their entire stay in Bolivia, the members of the group he was in had never been out in the open; they had to constantly hide, avoid the cities, and thus remain at the mercy of the smugglers. The smugglers obviously take advantage of the situation to extract as much money as possible by constantly demanding new payments, which means that many migrants are stripped of a large part of their savings in what is only the second or third stage of a long and perilous journey.
The extortion by the different Bolivian authorities is also frequent. Some people who agreed to testify about their journey through the country said that the buses in which they travelled were often stopped by police officers, who let them continue in exchange for 50 USD per passenger. At other times, passports are confiscated in exchange for larger sums. In addition, human trafficking in Bolivia, as elsewhere, is closely linked to exploitation for sexual or labor purposes. Haitian men and women who cross Bolivia have every reason to hide, but this near invisibility only makes them even more vulnerable, because they are hidden from view.
Irregular migrants have a bad press everywhere, from Desaguadero to Roxham Road. However, let's not forget that these people are trying to escape from unbearable situations in which the future presents no opportunity except poverty, violence and insecurity. Moreover, the journey they undertake to reach North America is immensely perilous, and those who make it to our borders have gone through hardships that we can only imagine. That is why Canada must continue to treat all of these people fairly and equitably, according to the international agreements we have signed, such as the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the 2018 Global Compact on Migration, or the 2022 Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, but also according to the basic tenets of the rule of law, which holds that an individual's fundamental rights must be respected by the political power regardless of party affiliation. These people deserve, beyond our sympathy, to be treated with the dignity and respect they are due, and understanding where they have come from and what they have experienced is an essential first step in that direction.
François de Montigny, Investigation and Human Rights Advisor, CECI Bolivia, holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.