More Venezuelans Face Hell at the Darien Gap

Many migrants, including Venezuelans, are risking their lives crossing an untamed jungle that covers the border between Colombia and Panama, as they move north in search of a better life

Photo: The New York Times

The Darien Gap is considered to be the deadliest migration route in the Americas. Crossing it means facing a myriad of dangers. As Jessica Bolter from the Migration Policy Institute reports, “there are criminal gangs that assault migrants, sexual assaults and sudden floods of the river that carry people away, who die by drowning. Many migrants run out of supplies. On their journey through the jungle, they may be injured or abandoned by the group they are traveling with if they are not able to walk as fast as the rest.” There are also guerrilla and paramilitary groups profiting from drug trafficking and smuggling, and involved in human and migrant trafficking schemes. There are stories of children who have been left dead in the jungle by their parents, or of babies being born in the route only to be taken by fellow migrants because the moms didn’t make it.

In all, the human stories of what migrants have to go through when crossing the Darien Gap are even more appalling than those we hear of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border via the desert or the Rio Grande, or the piercing stories of African migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

The saddest part is that the number of children crossing the Darien keeps increasing: Unicef reported recently that 2021 has broken the record in terms of the number of migrant children crossing that jungle. Moreover, that also in 2021, “at least 5 children were found dead in the jungle […] more than 150 children arrived in Panama without their parents, some of them are newborn babies—with a nearly 20-time increase compared to last year.”

Whereas in the past it was a route mostly used by Haitians, Cubans as well as extra continental migrants from Asia and Africa (from countries such as Bangladesh, Senegal, Ghana, Uzbekistan, India and Nepal), there have been important increases in the number of Venezuelan migrants and refugees moving north through there. The latest data by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reveals that there has been an increase in the number of Venezuelan migrants arriving through the Darien route. In 2017, 66 Venezuelans were registered, but between January and September 2021, the number was 1,529, a 2,216.66% increase.

The Panamanian government has responded to the humanitarian needs of this population as best possible within their means. They have created a physical and institutional infrastructure to temporarily house the population in transit and attend to their humanitarian needs, including the installation of two Migrant Reception Centres  (ERMs, for their Spanish acronyms), where migrants find lodging and food and have been providing health check-ups and medicines to those in need. However, they need support. Responding to the Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis requires all hands on deck, and for countries not to rely on what Panama or any other country can provide alone, but what they can all, collectively, provide. After all, countries have the responsibility to protect this population. And this is a responsibility that needs to be shared.

My article doesn’t do justice to the dire reality of migrants in this part of the Americas. If you have a chance, check out this curated list of videos in English with excellent reporting on what’s really happening to migrants in the Darien Gap.

* Opinions are personal. They do not represent those of the Organization of American States (OAS).