(CNN) – Thousands of migrants are traveling in Latin America hoping to head north for a better life in the United States. But the long journey is proving to be a breeding ground for human traffickers preying on the vulnerable.
CNN’s Freedom Project has the story of one pregnant woman who is hoping to give her child the American Dream before it’s too late.
Costa Rica is known for its vast beaches and rugged rainforests…a destination that draws tourists from all over the world.
None of that is why 22-year-old Yolanda is here.
She agreed to speak with me on the condition that we not show her face on camera. “My situation has been very difficult on this trip, because I left Brazil and have been on the road almost three months.”
Yolanda says she is originally from Congo. She and her husband among tens of thousands of migrants from around the globe, criss-crossing South and Central America in their struggle to reach the United States.
“I passed by many countries in order to get to Costa Rica. A lot of roads, lots of bus rides, and a lot of walking too. I passed through Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama, before arriving to Costa Rica.”
Yolanda says she arrived four days ago, hoping to quickly receive a “laissez passer” – the document she and her husband need to legally enter Costa Rica and transit north to the next border.
Only to discover they’ll have to wait six weeks just for an appointment with Costa Rican immigration officials, as the government copes with an unprecedented influx of migrants.
Costa Rican communications minister Mauricio Herrera Ulloa says, “At the moment, we are absolutely overwhelmed with this situation, and we’re doing our best to protect the human rights of the people who are coming to Costa Rica. The Costa Rican population has shown incredible spirit of solidarity with the immigrants and we’re very proud of our people. They are dealing daily, minute to minute, with a totally new problem that we never had in our country.”
Yolanda takes me to the makeshift hostel where she’s staying – just a short walk from the border. Her options are limited. Without paperwork, she doesn’t have access to government shelters yet. “I am staying at a hostel that has more than 50 people. The situation is very difficult there, sleeping on a mattress on the floor. We pay five dollars per day. Each room has about 10 people sleeping on a mattress on the floor.”
This will be her home for the next month and a half. She tells me she already had to ask for money from family back home. That money is now running out – and she says she can’t ask for more.
Making matters even more challenging, Yolanda is seven months pregnant. She hasn’t seen a doctor in two months…and she’s worried.
“I hope to leave early, for my turn to come fast, so I can see a doctor. I don’t want my baby to be born on the road. If I have to spend around a month here, I don’t know what will happen later on.”
Yolanda says she left Congo for Brazil, where she lived for a year, working in a restaurant. When she and her husband lost their jobs, they decided to leave – dreaming of a better life for themselves, and the daughter they hope will be born in the United States.
The odds are not in their favor. Tens of thousands of migrants are on the move throughout Central and South America, and experts say many are at risk of human trafficking.
IOM border management specialist Cy Winter says, “From here north, the Nicaragua border is closed, it’s much more difficult to get into Mexico, there’s some serious criminal elements that will prey on them along the way. And how does that make them vulnerable to human trafficking? When the management of the border is hardened, and people start looking for ways to get around a legal admission into a country, they get severed from the country’s public administration system and then they’re vulnerable. We’re seeing it and we’re worried about it.”
Officials believe a majority of the migrants are actually from Haiti – even though most say they are from Congo. As one migrant told me off camera – “Here, Congo isn’t a country, it’s a password” for Haitian migrants.
Winter says, “the people that I’ve spoken to claiming to be from Congo, who barely even know the capital and don’t know the dialects that are spoken in the Congo and don’t know the football jersey of the Congo and all these things, they typically are convinced that people from the Congo can’t be deported to the Congo”
That’s because it’s costs a lot more for governments in the Americas to deport people to Africa than Haiti. It’s also easier for Haitians to pass themselves off as Congolese, because like Haiti, Congo is a French-speaking country.
When I first met Yolanda, I asked her the name of her hometown, and she couldn’t quite pronounce it – Brazzaville, the capitol of Congo.
And as I said good-bye to her and her husband and watched them walk away, they were speaking softly to each other… in what sounded like a distinctive Haitian Creole.
Copyright 2016 CNN