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Pandemic conditions fuel rise in migrants braving the Darien Gap

Last year, the PBS NewsHour brought you stories of migrants traveling through one of the world's most lawless and dangerous places: the Darien Gap, a roadless jungle expanse along the border of Colombia and Panama. Special correspondent Nadja Drost, videographer Bruno Federico and producer Carlos Villalon traveled there under harrowing circumstances to report on people striving for better lives.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last year, we brought you the stories of migrants traveling through one of the world's most lawless and dangerous places, the Darien Gap, a roadless jungle expanse along the border of Colombia and Panama.

    Special correspondent Nadja Drost and her husband, videographer Bruno Federico, along with producer Carlos Villalon, traveled there under harrowing circumstances to shed light on people striving for better lives.

  • Nadja Drost:

    Underneath the soaring canopy, migrants from around the worked risked death crossing the jungle in a desperate bid to reach the U.S. and Canada. They have no map and no instructions on how to make it through one of the world's most dangerous migration routes.

  • Jean Delicat (through translator):

    I would like to send a message to anyone who is thinking of doing this route. It's very dangerous. If I knew this, I wouldn't have done it.

  • Nadja Drost:

    Many migrants spend a week or even two on this trail before they reach a village and safety. But these journeys started long before.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two weeks ago, Nadja received a Pulitzer Prize for her writing from that trip. And, last Thursday, she and Bruno were named Peabody Award winners, the most prestigious in broadcasting, for their stories reported for the "NewsHour."

    That is an extraordinarily rare accomplishment.

    I spoke with Nadja last week shortly after the news.

    Nadja, congratulations. It doesn't come any bigger than this, a Pulitzer Prize on top of a Peabody, the two of them together. How are you dealing with all of this?

  • Nadja Drost:

    I don't know how I'm dealing with it, Judy.

    It's a really wonderful shock. And I continue to kind of try to make sense of it. And I'm really grateful for the honors, and I'm especially grateful that these stories are getting renewed tension right now, because they're ongoing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you remind us, Nadja, that their lives are ongoing.

    As we were pointing out, you stayed in touch with a number of the migrants you met in covering the Darien Gap crossing. Tell us about how some of them are managing now.

  • Nadja Drost:

    Sure.

    So, in each group that we followed — and these were groups from Haiti, from Bangladesh, from Pakistan, and from Cameroon — pretty much all of them spent many months in ICE detention. And some of them were deported.

    Many of them ended up having to wait about a year to get work permits. Some of them are still in that limbo. So it's very difficult for many of them to basically sustain themselves in the U.S. right now, especially having arrived during the pandemic with lockdowns.

    We followed a group of Cameroonians. And I think that some viewers might remember George, who was a Cameroonian man who was severely injured. He had sprained his ankle. And his group had to basically leave him behind in the jungle.

    And by a small miracle, George managed to literally crawl his way through the jungle alone without food for two weeks. I'm happy to report that George now lives in Maryland.

    I will also mention a remarkable woman, Sandra, who was also a part of this Cameroonian group. Sandra spent eight months in ICE detention. She was transferred between facilities. She was shackled and dressed in a prisoner's uniform, actually.

    When she was finally released, she was able to reunite with her fiance in Texas. And, meanwhile, she's trying to create a new life here in the United States and has a newborn baby girl who is 3 weeks old.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So many ups and downs, as you say, in these lives, as each individual tries to make their way.

    Just finally, Nadja, it's a hard enough situation as it is, but, as you mentioned, along came the pandemic. How would you sum up how the pandemic changed the migrant trail for these people?

  • Nadja Drost:

    It did.

    You know, so many migrants who had already flown from Asia, from South Asia, from Africa, from the Middle East became stranded somewhere along the route either in South America or Central America.

    We have now seen a tremendous increase in the number of people who are retaking this route. And, in fact, just in the months of April and May, 5,000 migrants each month have been crossing the Darien Gap, for a total of over 15,000 just in this year alone.

    And I think that we really can see in those numbers — they kind of tell the story of the impact to have the pandemic on the impact of the pandemic on these migrants.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Truly the story of the pandemic, as well as the story of each and every individual to try to survive and to create a life for themselves.

    Nadja Drost, congratulations again to you, to your husband, Bruno Federico, for this extraordinary work you have done, the Pulitzer, the Peabody. We are so proud of you. Thank you very much.

  • Nadja Drost:

    Thank you, Judy.

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