After two weeks trekking through the jungles of the perilous Darién Gap with her family, Jaimarys Carolina Martínez was relieved to finally emerge safely on the other side.
“It’s terrifying,” said Carolina Martínez, 31, describing the 14-hour daily treks with her husband and 10-year-old son.
“First, you have to climb what seems like a thousand mountains and then you trek through bogs following a never-ending river. If you camp too close to the river it will sweep you away. I’m just glad we made it out in one piece.”
And on top of the risks posed by the unforgiving jungle is the threat posed by humans: bandits and armed groups routinely target migrants for robbery and sexual abuse.
Now, her family is receiving treatment at a camp in southern Panama where Doctors Without Borders have provided them with psychological support, their first proper meal in more than a week, and rehydration salts as they recover from sickness caused by drinking river water.
If they had completed the crossing just a few weeks earlier, Carolina Martínez and her family would now be contemplating their next step on the arduous journey they had hoped would take them from north-eastern Venezuela to the United States.
Instead they are stuck at the camp after hearing the news that the treacherous journey was in vain. The US closed its border to Venezuelan migrants on 12 October when the family was under the jungle canopy.
“I still can’t believe it,” she said, her stoic voice unable to conceal her disillusionment. “So much sacrifice, people strewn on the floor dead, and you risk your life, for nothing?”
Thousands of Venezuelans from Panama to Mexico have found themselves in the same desperate limbo. After risking their lives to cross the only land bridge connecting South to Central America, they received the bewildering news that the US is no longer receiving Venezuelan asylum seekers at the Mexican border.
Having been pushed back by different governments in the region, many are camped out in treatment centers or on the roadside, says Blaine Bookey, legal director for the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies. “It’s pretty dire. They have no money and no choices,” she says.
The new US policy was introduced using an emergency power known as Title 42 granted on public health grounds, but critics say it is simply a way to deter Venezuelans from heading to the US.
Most of the 7 million Venezuelans who have fled insecurity and economic crisis in recent years have sought shelter with their Latin American neighbors, but a growing number are heading north for work and security. A record 150,000 people have risked their lives to cross the Darién this year alone.
Carolina Martínez says she did not want to leave Venezuela: she was forced to make a difficult choice when her salary working in food processing was not enough to put food on the table. “We earned $40 between us and a kilo of meat cost 15. What can you do?” she said.
The US will allow 24,000 Venezuelan asylum seekers by plane, provided they have a sponsor and financial support.
The scheme is similar to one established for Ukrainian refugees. But unlike Ukrainians, most Venezuelan migrants have been ground down by a decade of economic collapse and end their journeys with little more than the clothes on their back.
“Most of these people are stuck,” says Tobia Borelli, who works at Doctors Without Borders’ treatment center in San Vicente, on the Panamanian side of the Darién. “They’re here with their families waiting for some money to be sent from Western Union or just hoping for something to change. There are no clear options now.”
Some raced northward on foot and on buses in the false hope of getting to the US before the new policy was enacted. Others are stranded across Central America with no money or obvious route forward.
They must now decide either to try to seek work where they are – or retrace the same arduous journey back home.
The policy change is creating a new humanitarian crisis, say medical NGOs tending to migrants. Treatment centers from Panama to Mexico are overcrowded, leaving women and young children to sleep on the street.
Another 366 Venezuelans passed through San Vicente last Saturday – many of whom were unaware of the news.
“A growing number of people have been in the camp for more than a week and there is an increasing number of children with viral infections, diarrheoa and dehydration. The situation is very delicate, as these illnesses always spread when camps are overcrowded,” Borelli says.
Many migrants are trapped by a domino effect of increasingly strict border policies across the region, Bookey says. Some, turned back from countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, have been refused entry by authorities at Panama’s northern border without proof of onward travel.
“This is not a solution and this is not humane. It’s the total erosion of our asylum system,” said Bookey.
The US has a moral obligation to receive Venezuelan migrants, she said – even before consideration that Washington led a failed international effort to dislodge dictator Nicolás Maduro and imposed heavy sanctions on its economy.
“Seeking asylum in the United States should never depend on your nationality. We owe a legal obligation to protect anyone who’s fleeing persecution. Regardless of our impact, or any promises that we’ve made, that’s the law,” she said.
Most migrants were blindsided by the move but many have already given up hope on getting to the USA and are trying to find a way back home.
“I need to get out of this place but I don’t know how,” Carolina Martínez says. “Bus tickets are $40 each but there are three of us and we can’t even afford a bottle of water. I just want to cry.”