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‘Disillusioned about China’, more Chinese aim for US via risky Darien Gap | Migration

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Necocli, Colombia – Shortly after 8am, about a dozen Chinese migrants rush out the doors of Mansion del Darien, a rundown hotel a few blocks from Colombia’s Caribbean coast, and pile into three tuk-tuks waiting on the street.

“We’re full of Chinese people every day,” said the receptionist, Gabriela Fernandez, scurrying past the front desk with a clipboard in hand. “All the time, big groups of them are arriving and leaving together. It’s been like this for months.”

Behind her, signs explaining the hotel prices and policies are written in Mandarin. Pots of spicy instant noodles imported from China are for sale next to bottles of water. Payments via the Chinese social media app WeChat are accepted.

“They move along in their own separate world,” Fernandez said.

The group of middle-aged travellers, wearing hats and carrying tents and walking poles, are dressed for a trek. But not everything quite adds up. Many are wearing lightweight Crocs footwear, and their small backpacks are wrapped in plastic bags.

It is here in Necocli, a beach town near the border with Panama, that marks the starting point for crossing the Darien Gap, a region of dense and inhospitable jungle that has become a major migration route for those trying to reach the United States.

In 2023, more than 500,000 migrants crossed the treacherous Darien, which is the only overland route from South to North America, according to data collected by the Panamanian government. Just over 25,000 of those migrants were Chinese, making them the fourth largest overall nationality and the largest outside of the Americas to making the crossing.

“This is a new element that was not there in previous years,” said Giuseppe Loprete, head of mission in Panama for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a UN body that provides information for migrants crossing the Darien. “It’s a lot of people, and it’s a long way to come. For the smuggling networks, it’s big business.”

Chinese migrants – unlike many of the other most common nationalities in the Darien, such as Venezuelans and Haitians – often take special “VIP” routes across the jungle that are led by guides working for the Gulf Clan, Colombia’s largest drug cartel, and are quicker and less strenuous for higher prices than the most basic routes.

Through a combination of boat journeys, hikes and, in some cases, horseback rides either along the Caribbean or Pacific coast, they are able to make the crossing in a couple of days rather than the weeklong trip that cheaper routes usually take.

Traffickers in Necocli told Al Jazeera that while the cheapest routes across the Darien cost about $350, the more direct routes along the Panamanian coast through towns such as Carreto and Coetupo and arriving at one of Panama’s migrant reception centres cost $850.

A line of Chinese migrants waiting to depart on boats in Necoclí-
A line of Chinese migrants waiting to depart on boats in Necocli [Peter Yeung/Al Jazeera]

But in some cases – with journeys to the island of San Andres, which is just a few hours by boat from Nicaragua – the price is as much as $5,000. It can bring in tens of millions of dollars per month for the cartel.

After all that spending, the migrants must head north through the rest of Central America, contending with corruption, theft and violence as they make their way to the US-Mexico border.

‘Why we want to go to the United States’

During a two-day visit in Necocli, Al Jazeera observed dozens of Chinese migrants preparing for the journey, including engineers, teachers and computer programmers.

Waiting on the beach to leave on a boat to Panama with a friend, Wu Xiaohua, 42, said he opted to take one of those quicker journeys because he is eager to arrive in the US and start work as soon as possible. Originally from Hunan province, Xiaohua moved to Shanghai to work as a taxi driver, but since the pandemic, life has been a struggle.

“There are major problems in our country’s economy,” he said. ‘We have no choice but to survive. That’s why we want to go to the United States.”

“Our requirements are very simple: We can afford medical treatment, have a place to live, our children can afford to go to school and our family can be safe.”

One migrant, Huang, who asked to share only her surname, said she left Beijing two months ago after China’s strict COVID-19 lockdowns ended her employment as a masseuse, leaving her barely able to survive day to day.

“I sold everything that I had,” Huang said. “We were treated like caged animals.”

Chinese migrants being led in a group to begin the trek-
Chinese migrants are led in a group to begin the trek [Peter Yeung/Al Jazeera]

The huge spike in Chinese people making the journey across the Darien – a journey now so popular it is known in Mandarin as “zouxian”, or walking the line — has been driven by the Chinese government’s COVID-19 lockdowns, increasingly rigid rule and the recent flatlining of China’s once-imperious economy.

“It’s down to political and economic uncertainties,” said Min Zhou, a professor of sociology and Asian-American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “There has been a downturn in the Chinese economy. People have become unemployed, and there’s discontentment about the government’s tight policies.”

Ai Weiwei, a dissident artist and activist who fled China in 2015 due to repression, told Al Jazeera that the phenomenon is a sign of declining trust in the government.

“Normally in China, ordinary people are very reluctant to leave their homes,” he said. “This phenomenon of people going through the agony of climbing through the rainforest, dragging their children with them, is the first of its kind to be seen.”

‘Chinese migrants are particularly vulnerable’

More than 37,000 Chinese citizens were arrested for illegally crossing the southern border of the US in 2023, according to US Customs and Border Protection. That number is nearly 10 times the total in 2022 and  more than double that of the entire previous decade.

The journey from China can take months of cross-continental travel and can cost as much as tens of thousands of dollars. Many fly into Istanbul or Addis Ababa, which pose few logistical issues, and then onto Ecuador, one of the few Latin American countries that allow Chinese nationals visa-free entry. From there, the danger-filled, fraught journey to the Darien, and eventually to the US, is made largely overland.

“The Chinese migrants are particularly vulnerable,” Loprete said. “They are seen as more wealthy, and so they can be targeted. The language problem also means that if something happens, it’s more difficult for them to access medical attention.”

During the journey, Chinese migrants are often taken advantage of by traffickers, Loprete added. Beatings and robberies are also common in the lawless Panamanian side of the route.

A sign in Mandarin characters in Necoclí-
A sign in Mandarin in Necocli [Peter Yeung/Al Jazeera]

The Chinese embassy in Panama did not respond to questions over whether it is supporting its citizens in the Darien but said in an emailed statement to Al Jazeera: “China firmly opposes and cracks down on any form of illegal immigration activity and actively participates in international cooperation in this field.”

According to Zhou, who is carrying out a research project on newly arrived Chinese migrants in Los Angeles, this wave of undocumented Chinese citizens is markedly different from the wave of migration in the 1980s and 1990s.

“They are now coming from all over the country,” Zhou said. “They are skilled. Some are college graduates.”

Some migrants interviewed by Zhou were misled to believe they could easily get a job for $10,000 in cash a month. However, the reality is that many are struggling to get jobs because employers are fearful of hiring undocumented workers.

“The experience is driving them crazy,” she said. “It’s giving them nightmares.”

Wang Sheng Sheng, a 49-year-old originally from the western province of Qinghai, said his decision to leave China came down to a variety of reasons.

After working both as a teacher and in public relations in the city of Guangzhou, he said he felt “it was not easy for me to speak freely” due to increasing crackdowns on university professors and independent organisations.

At the same time, Sheng, who has a 12-year-old son living in China with his ex-wife, believes that life in California could offer him better prospects to improve his living conditions, even if it means crossing the Darien, which requires scaling mountains, crossing powerful rivers and dodging armed bandits along the 115km (70-mile) route.

“I was forced to do this,” Sheng said while sipping a cup of tea at his hotel in Necocli. “It’s really difficult for most Chinese people to apply for a visa to America. But I feel disillusioned about China. That’s why we’re here in the jungle.”

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