Thousands of Honduran migrants hoping to reach the United States have entered Guatemala, testing the newly reopened frontier that had been shut by the coronavirus pandemic.
Authorities had planned to register the migrants as they crossed and offer assistance to those willing to turn back, but early on Thursday, the group pushed past armed guards without registering. By midday more than 3,000 migrants had crossed illegally, said Guatemalan officials.
The caravan is the biggest since the coronavirus pandemic hit Central America in March, shutting off travel as well as triggering a rise in unemployment and poverty.
Before the crossing happened, Edwin Omar Molino, a 17-year-old from Cortés, said he wanted to leave Honduras because he couldn’t find work. “Even when you want to find a job, there aren’t any. That’s why we leave our country,” Molino said.
“There’s the pandemic, and it scares me,” he added. But he said he wouldn’t be able to help his family get ahead without taking the risk.
Central American migrants began traveling in large groups in recent years, seeking safety in numbers and in some cases avoiding the cost of smugglers. Calls for a new migrant caravan to leave on 1 October had circulated for weeks on social media.
The odds of a large migrant caravan reaching the US border, already low, have grown increasingly slim over the past year. Under pressure from the United States, Mexico deployed its national guard and more immigration agents to break up attempted caravans last year. Actually crossing into the US legally is virtually impossible now with the pandemic, and entering illegally is as difficult as ever.
The departure of the new group was reminiscent of a migrant caravan that formed two years ago shortly before US midterm elections. It became a hot issue in the campaign, fueling anti-immigrant rhetoric. But while the caravans draw attention, they account for a small fraction of the daily migration flow by small groups that pass unnoticed through Central America and Mexico.
The migrants who arrived at the Guatemala border on Thursday had set out walking the previous night from San Pedro Sula, and many wore masks. They appeared to be mostly young men, though there were the occasional small children being pushed in strollers.
Mexico’s immigration agency said in a statement that it would enforce “safe, orderly and legal” migration and not do anything to promote the formation of a caravan. The US embassy in Honduras said on Twitter on Wednesday that migration to the US was more difficult than ever right now – and more dangerous because of the coronavirus.
But the factors driving migrants to leave Central America have not eased during the pandemic. As economies have suffered, there are ever fewer jobs to be had, and the struggle for families to put food on the table has only worsened.
The UN’s International Labor Organization said on Wednesday that at least 34m jobs have been lost in Latin America due to the pandemic. The ILO lists Latin America and the Caribbean as the worst-hit region in the world in terms of lost working hours, with a drop of 20.9% in the first three quarters of the year.
The flow of migrants north from Central America had slowed dramatically during the pandemic as countries throughout the region closed their borders.