In early February 2014, an exhausted 17-year-old named Sujon Alom was arrested in Texas after illegally crossing the border from Mexico. In the children's detention facility where he was held, Alom's fellow inmates were mostly Central American. He was from a little further afield: His journey began in Noakhali, a rural district in southeastern Bangladesh. It had been a long, dangerous, and difficult trip.
"I knew that I was going to come to America by road, that I was going to cross different countries," said Alom, who has been released while his asylum petition is pending. Speaking through an interpreter in a cramped tutoring center in Jamaica, Queens, he recounted in detail the remarkable and often hellish overland odyssey that he had taken to reach the United States. After flying from Bangladesh, Alom's land journey began in Bolivia. Traveling via various forms of transportation including buses and taxis, he had been smuggled north through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and on to Panama, across Central America. He had hiked for days through the Ecuadorian and Panamanian rainforests, rarely stopping to sleep. At one point in Mexico, he and 12 others spent three days locked in a semi trailer with no food. When he reached the US border, which he said he crossed in a small boat along with about 20 other migrants, it had been three and a half months since he'd left Bangladesh. He had traversed 11 different countries by road and foot.
He hadn't seen a bed in 4,000 miles.
Alom's story, if incredible, is not unique. As Europe grapples with a catastrophic migrant crisis, and as the US heads into a presidential election in which immigration is set to become a central issue, an overlooked but growing group of undocumented migrants, mainly from South Asia, has forged a preposterously circuitous corridor through South America in the hope of reaching the United States. Thousands of people from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Nepal are traveling up to 10,000 overland miles from as far south as Bolivia and Argentina—a trip that can take anywhere from three to six months. Along the way, migrants endure kidnappings, long detentions, hunger, and sickness. The harrowing details of this long South Asian march through South America offer a particularly dismaying illustration of the increasingly extreme risks that some are taking in the pursuit of a better life.
So far this year, there have been 2,988 apprehensions of Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, and Nepalis, compared to 924 in the whole of 2012.
Fahd Ahmed, a staff member at DRUM NYC, a large union for documented and undocumented South Asian migrants, first heard reports of Indian and Bangladeshi individuals showing up at the US-Mexico border in 2010. Before that time, "Usually people would come here on a visit visa and overstay," explained Ahmed, who is now the director of DRUM. It was discovered that immigrants from Asia, particularly South Asia, had been flying to Guatemala, where they joined the stream of Central American individuals heading toward the US. Some news outlets reported that small numbers of migrants were thought to be arriving through South America, though these cases were never confirmed in the press. In the following years, as international focus on migration into Guatemala intensified, landfall points were pushed much farther south. It was only a year and a half ago that Ahmed began to hear stories of DRUM members who had traveled from Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. He now hears such stories with increasing frequency.
This route, which could be up to three times as long as the journey from Guatemala, appears to be the new norm. John Lawit, an immigration attorney based in Texas, told me that in the past 18 months he's interviewed 70 people from Bangladesh and India who were apprehended at the Mexico border. Every single one of them, he explained, had made the overland journey through South America. According to Lawit, roughly 50 people in that group signed affidavits affirming the details of their journey.
Lawit, who has since left that law firm, described one man's account from an affidavit that he was working on at the time of the interview. "He left Bangladesh in August of 2014," he said. "He then went to Dubai, then to Brazil, then to Argentina, then to Bolivia. From Bolivia he went back to Brazil. Then he went to Venezuela, then to Colombia. Then to Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, drove to El Salvador, then on to Guatemala. Took a bus to the Mexican border. He was arrested and jailed for 13 days in Mexico, then he was given a 20-day visa to leave Mexico and return to Bangladesh. And at that point he came to the United States."
He paused. "That's pretty typical."
The migrants who spoke to VICE were often kept in the dark about where exactly their smugglers were taking them, so it's difficult to estimate exactly what kind of distances they covered. By road, the journey from La Paz to El Paso, Texas is roughly 6,000 miles. But these migrants often cross borders between South and Central American countries illegally by foot and take long detours in order to evade immigration authorities and police, so their actual routes are probably much longer.
"For many people in Bangladesh, life is just unbearable, because they have to choose the right side, and if they don't choose the right side they're persecuted." —John Lawit
One Bangladeshi crosser, Akash, whose real name I have withheld because he is undocumented, began his overland journey in Peru. He described various multi-day treks through difficult terrain, including steep mountainous areas and thick jungles. He was taken from Colombia to Panama by boat, probably across the Gulf of Urabá, which has, according to the Colombian Navy, become a busy transit route for migrants from many different countries, such as Cuba and Haiti. Akash, like others, described being held in safe houses along the route, sometimes spending weeks in unfamiliar towns and cities, the names of which they were often never told. Detentions and kidnappings are common.
Official figures reflect a significant spike in South Asian overland migration into the US since 2012. According to statistics prepared for VICE by Customs and Border Protection, yearly border apprehensions of South Asians have more than tripled between 2012 and 2015. So far this year, there have been 2,988 apprehensions of Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, and Nepalis, compared to 924 in the whole of 2012.
Asylum statistics also suggest that undocumented South Asian crossings into the US are on the rise. In December 2013, Rezaul Islam approached the American border at Tijuana by foot. When a Customs and Border Protection officer asked him for his documents, Islam, who is middle-aged, said that he didn't have any, and that he was seeking political asylum. He had left Dhaka three years earlier. A member of the Jamaat-e-Islami political party, Islam had seen how fellow party officials were being picked up in a spate of arrests under the new ruling party, the Awami League. He had flown to Ecuador, where he lived and worked illegally from 2010 until 2013, when he joined the ever-growing stream of his countrymen who were passing through Quito en route to the US border. While his application was processed, he claims that he was held for 180 days at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center, in Washington State.
Like Rezaul Islam, those who are apprehended often petition for political asylum. "For many people in Bangladesh, life is just unbearable, because they have to choose the right side, and if they don't choose the right side they're persecuted," Lawit said. Asylum statistics also reflect the likely surge in South Asian border crossings. According to figures released by the Department of Justice, the US government received over twice the number of asylum petitions from people of Indian and Bangladeshi origin in 2014 than it had in any of the four previous years.
Of course, apprehensions and asylum statistics only represent part of the picture. No official estimates have yet been produced for the number of South Asian migrants like Akash, who were able to evade authorities and who chose not to file for asylum. Fahd Ahmed has heard anecdotal evidence, through DRUM's members, of dozens of cases of border crossers who began their journeys in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. However, many crossers are reluctant to speak even to him, given their undocumented status. Rezaul Islam claims that he knows hundreds of South Asians living in the US who made the journey through South America. He says that while living in Quito for three years, he saw thousands of migrants passing through en route to the US border.
The passage of such large numbers of migrants across such vast distances is enabled by a complex intercontinental criminal network. In migrants' home countries, so-called "agents" will offer prospective migrants passage to the United States for anywhere between $15,000 and $30,000. Once in South America, migrants are received by a string of local smugglers, who relay their human consignment across thousands of miles.
"There may be six or eight different people that they meet with in order to get to the US," Lawit told me. Sujon, Rezaul, and Akash all confirmed that they were ferried along their routes by a coordinated network of local smugglers, who communicated by cell phone. Migrants "pay the money to an agent in Bangladesh, the agent gives them a number for all the countries," said Islam, who did not arrange his journey through an agent in Bangladesh. "This is their business." At several points, Akash, who was defrauded by the original agent he contracted in Dhaka, stayed in safe houses along with other migrants. On at least one occasion, he spent several days at a smuggler's house.
"By zigzagging all over the continents, and changing the pattern every time," Lawit said, "it makes it very hard for the US government to pick up the routes."
"They have figured out multiple points, they have contacts at multiple points," said Ahmed, who described how previously agents would help produce fake documents, or secure tourist visas. "The complexity of it, the depth of it is much greater." In order to evade immigration enforcement, smugglers vary their routes, sometimes drastically. "By zigzagging all over the continents, and changing the pattern every time," Lawit said, "it makes it very hard for the US government to pick up the routes."
The authorities of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru now find themselves playing the role of immigration enforcers. In 2010, the year that Rezaul Islam landed in Quito, Ecuadorian officials noticed a striking spike in the number of Bangladeshi and Pakistani citizens entering the country on tourist visas, only to then disappear. Ecuador had never been a popular destination for Bangladeshis: In 2002, not a single Bangladeshi citizen entered the country's borders, according to the BBC's Spanish language service. In 2009, 821 Bangladeshi and Pakistani citizens landed in Ecuador and obtained tourist visas. Of those individuals, a majority never registered as having left the country.
Local authorities have struggled to keep up with the smuggling networks that sustain the transit of South Asians across their borders. According to the Peruvian newspaper El Comercia, in 2013, the Peruvian National Police arrested two men, a Nepali and a Bangladeshi, who allegedly orchestrated the transportation for dozens of South Asians toward the United States. There have been multiple reports of police in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia discovering holding houses with dozens of undocumented migrants from Bangladesh, India, and Nepal.
"If I had known, I never would have come. Everybody was cheating me." —Akash
The journey is, by every account, extremely dangerous.
When Akash, who said he left Bangladesh after receiving death threats from men associated with a property development company engaged in a protracted dispute with his father, arrived in Ecuador, he was abandoned by his Bangladeshi agent, who had received $15,000 to arrange the journey to the US. For the 18-hour trip across the Gulf of Urabá, Akash and 25 others were packed into a boat that was just wide enough for two people to sit, pressed against each other in the fetal position. He described how the boat's engine cut out several times. Once he reached the Panamanian Isthmus, he walked for six days through the jungle, contracting a severe skin infection that made his skin bright red.
During a seven-day trek through the same area, Rezaul Islam saw a fellow traveler drown while attempting to cross a river. He said that meals consisted of a single mouthful of raw rice, once or twice a day. His legs are covered in large scars from cuts and insect bites that he says he acquired during his various overland treks.
In Mexico, Akash was forced into a semi trailer, like Sujon Alom, with around 20 other migrants. After being detained by Mexican immigration officials for just under a month, Akash said he was kidnapped and held for ransom by a coyote called "the Tiger," to whom he had already paid $5,000 to smuggle him into the US. By the time he reached New York City, he had been traveling for six months; he claims that the journey had cost his family $33,000.
Nobody in Bangladesh had told him about the risks involved in taking the South American route. "If I had known, I never would have come. Everybody was cheating me," he said.
Even the dismaying stories of those migrants who make it to the US likely do not really reflect the full extent of the risks of the journey. "It's a self-selecting sample," Fahd Ahmed explained. "The people who didn't make it, who took the really risky routes, those people aren't here."
"I have two contradictory feelings," Fahd Ahmed said when asked what he thought about the South American odyssey that his members had taken. "The first one is a desire to say, 'Why would you do this?' And to encourage people not to do this.
"On the other hand, the stronger feeling is that migration is natural to human beings," he continued. "We need to be a lot more concerned about addressing the root causes of why people are being forced to migrate in the first place." He explained that DRUM channels the experience of it members into tangible demands. As a result, it maintains a strong anti-immigration enforcement stance, and demands policies that address the forces that motivate illegal migration from South Asia in the first place.
Sujon Alom, for his part, is glad to be in America. "I am safe, so I am happy," he said. But he also wonders whether the risks that he had endured were worth it. In the tutoring center, he reflected on the harrowing experience in the truck.
"No, they didn't open it," he said. "They gave us no food. They only gave us water. If we needed to pee, they gave us big empty water bottles." When one of the men lost consciousness, the driver instructed Alom and the others to dump him by the side of the road (they refused). He says he still hasn't fully recovered from the physical strain and malnutrition that he experienced on the trip. "I heard that this was a dangerous way to get to America," he said, "but I had no idea what type of risks or what type of danger I'd see. Every single second we had no guarantee that our lives were safe." He continued, "I want to say: Don't try this. It's very dangerous."
He turned from his interpreter and repeated, now in English, "Very dangerous."