Karina Silva, a 41-year-old Venezuelan surgeon, shows the Venezuelan flag upon her arrival on October 13, 2022, in the town of Bajo Chiquito (Panama), after crossing the Darién jungle.
When José crossed the Darien jungle, he knew that his life was not going to be the same. And that migration was not a new phenomenon for him. Born in Colombia, as a young man he migrated to Venezuela and, with the crisis in that country, he went to Ecuador, where he opened a business. A few months ago, his 19-year-old daughter announced that she was going to the United States in search of the American dream. Desperate, after a while without news of her, he headed to Mexico to try to find her. That was when she had to overcome the Darién Gap, one of the most dangerous and impenetrable stretches of jungle in the world that divides Colombia and Panama.
“This story well illustrates the migratory dynamics in the region, mixed movements, disappearances, exposure to violence, and opportunities for a better life that are later truncated and become another displacement,” says María in an interview with América Futura. Cristóbal Alonso, regional advisor for mental health and psychosocial support for Latin America and the Caribbean for HIAS, an organization that provides humanitarian aid to refugees and works on both sides of the Darién, where he was able to interview José.
The passage of migrants through that thick green wall known as the Darién Gap is reaching unprecedented levels this year. It is estimated that more than 102,000 people have already crossed it and that at least 30 have died in that jungle so far in 2022. Added to the dangers that already exist are the proliferation of restrictive and punitive measures for mobility and the closure of some borders, which, in practice, means pushing migrants further to the margins and increasing the dangers they face. “People have opted for more insecure paths, where they are more exposed, there is more violence, including trafficking networks, trafficking networks,” says Cristóbal Alonso.
In this hostile environment, the displaced carry mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and strong feelings of guilt for leaving their places of origin, as the HIAS specialist warns, when speaking of the less visible wounds of migrants. “These people have concentration problems, they are not able to sleep, they have trouble making decisions, which prevents them from gathering the energy to get out of bed. Their chances of surviving or at least thriving are severely limited,” she notes.
Venezuelan migrants speak on the side of a Colombian highway, after the Government of this country reactivated the economic sectors at the end of the quarantine. STRINGER (Reuters)
The painful damage of the stigma
To this must be added the stigma that many of them face when crossing borders, racism and xenophobia, as, for example, began to be seen in Mexico with the proliferation of migrant caravans since 2019. Migrants are thus adding traumas, mourning without closing and damage to their mental health, perhaps the least visible in a situation of vulnerability like the one they live in, but problems after all that must be treated to heal. “From mental health and psychosocial support programs it is crucial to understand, identify, explore and investigate them when possible. But it is also equally important to explore and understand the other side of the coin: the factors that contribute to the integration of these people”, says Cristóbal.
The expert points out that mourning has many faces for the displaced: stress, confusion and uncertainty due to the lack of stability, isolation and insomnia, as well as feelings of anger and guilt for having had to flee their countries of origin. But the resources available to serve them are scarce.
And he asks to pay attention to the most vulnerable of all: minors. “For children and adolescents, these impacts of forced displacement are much deeper and, above all, more lasting,” says the HIAS specialist. Psychological attention focused on them and their closest relatives will mark a different pattern in their development, she warns. “Within the most community mental health strategy, there is psychosocial support, promoting mutual support, coping mechanisms that the community uses to heal, to recover, to get out of adversity,” she reflects.