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Tapachula: Carrefour des Exilés

Shot on assignment for M, le Magazine du Monde, February 2018

To get to Tapachula is to see the end of the tunnel. The border city of southern Mexico provides relief to hundreds of thousands of refugees en route to the United States. Many come from Latin America, but also, since the tightening of European borders, from Africa or Asia. And yet, with Donald Trump and his wall project, what should be a stopover turns into the end of the journey for many.” – Maryline Baumard, French journalist.

The sounds of Nepalese, English or Eritrean mixed with Spanish could be heard in Tapachula’s cheap hotels and migrant shelters, which used to be filled with Central Americans who had recently crossed from neighbouring Guatemala. There I met Cameroonians who, fleeing prosecution in their country, crossed to Nigeria, flew to visa-free Ecuador and started a journey on foot towards the Mexican city that lasted months.

They described the difficulties of crossing an entire continent – the language barriers, smugglers, assaults and robberies – and told the stories of those who didn’t make it. They also spoke of the good shelters in Costa Rica and the unbelievable difficulties across the Darién Gap – a 60-mile stretch of rainforest between Colombia and Panama, which is controlled by drug traffickers and armed groups.

There were also Cubans who left their island on a sailboat and spent 20 days at sea – five without food – before reaching Honduras, and Nepalese who travelled for nine months. Their stories were harrowing and their situation in the humble border town was very precarious.

They all seemed to have a blind determination to reach American soil no matter the challenges, and felt that the worst of their journey was behind them. These transcontinental migrants have opened a dramatic new chapter in the long story of immigration to the United States, making journeys of unimaginable difficulty up through South and Central America, dreaming of setting foot one day in the US.