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  • Human Rights Research Center

Dangerous Migration: The Darién Gap

February 20, 2024


As migration around the world increases, routes that migrants take are constantly changing. In past years, the number of migrants walking through the Darién Gap in attempts to reach the United States has increased drastically, posing humanitarian concerns. The Darién Gap is a stretch of sparsely populated jungle shared by Colombia and Panama that connects South and Central America. While migration through the Darién Gap is not a new phenomenon, the number of migrants crossing has skyrocketed since 2021. The journey is especially dangerous with exposure to unpredictable weather conditions, exploitation, and violence. On foot, the journey takes seven to ten days navigating through thick foliage and a roadless path. This article is the third and final edition to the migration series that examines migratory issues in the Americas.



Background


The Darién Gap is roughly 60 miles of sparsely populated land that connects Central and South America. Over the past several years, the number of migrants walking through this route has surged. Last year, roughly 520,000 migrants crossed the Darién Gap, setting a record, and more than doubling the number of people reported in 2022 (Mohor, 2024). There are several reasons why migrants are taking this route more frequently. For example, visas to Mexico and other Central American countries are becoming more difficult to obtain, leading migrants to cross through more dangerous routes. Additionally, authorities have cracked down on other routes of migration such as air and sea.


Demographics of nationalities making this journey have changed over the years. Between 2015 and 2021, migrants taking this route were primarily from Haiti and Cuba, however, Venezuelans and Ecuadorians now make up the majority of migrant crossings (Pappier, 2023). There has also been an increase of migrants crossing the Darién Gap from outside of the Western Hemisphere. Panamanian officials have recorded roughly eight percent of migrants originating from Asian countries—such as China, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka—and six percent from African countries—including Angola, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, and Sudan (OCHA, 2023). This change in demographics and rise in migrants crossing the Darién Gap demonstrates the lengths that migrants are willing to go to escape poverty and crime in their countries of origin, in hopes of reaching the United States.


Concerns


The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) (2023) found that over 40,000 children crossed through the Darién Gap in the first six months of 2023, with half of these children being under the age of five. Some of these children were unaccompanied or separated from their families during the journey. In Panama alone, officials recorded one in five children arriving every day in 2023 (OCHA, 2023). Due to how isolated this area is, figures of deaths on the Darién Gap may be higher than what is reported. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 48 people either died or went missing while trying to cross the Darién jungle in 2023. Since this area is sparsely populated, there are several rivers that migrants need to cross without bridges or boats available. Consequently, drowning is one of the leading causes of death, where a cause could be identified (Lucio et al., 2023). The Darién jungle is one of the wettest regions in the world with heavy rainfall that sometimes triggers landslides and has temperatures reaching up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Alongside facing unpredictable weather conditions, migrants risk being victims of violence. Smugglers and criminal groups, including members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Gulf Clan, often extort and sexually assault migrants on this route (Roy, 2022). The conditions that migrants face during this journey continue to pose humanitarian and security concerns.


Concerns surrounding the effects of migration on local populations have also risen. On their journey, migrants need to pass through Bajo Chiquito, an Indigenous Emberá Wounaán community in the Darién province of Panama. The increase in migration has transformed the economy of these locals from traditional livelihoods to providing services for migrants with children participating in income-generating activities. As a result, the community is experiencing decreased school attendance, and an increase of child labor (OCHA, 2023). The population of this small town cannot handle the influx of migrants passing through. There are only a handful of immigration officers with limited resources in Bajo Chiquito, leading to registration wait times of several days. As a result, migrants have fainted due to the dehydration and extreme heat while waiting to be registered by officials.


Due to the harsh conditions in this crossing, UNICEF (2023) has set up assistance in Panama with essential services such as water, hygiene and sanitation, health services and psychosocial support, and child protection for migrants. Additionally, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) launched a campaign, “Confía en el Tucán” (Trust the Toucan) on Facebook and TikTok to combat misinformation surrounding the Darién Gap. The initiative aims to provide reliable information about the risks associated with crossing the Darién jungle.


Conclusion


The number of migrants crossing the Darién Gap is unlikely to decrease anytime soon as migrants escape political unrest, lack of socioeconomic opportunities, and crime in their countries of origin. Different factors such as visas to Mexico and other Central American countries becoming difficult to obtain are contributing to migrants taking more dangerous routes in order to reach the United States and Canada. As socioeconomic and political conditions in some developing countries continue to deteriorate, more crossings through this region of the world will surge. Crossing through the Darién jungle is especially dangerous with migrants exposed to unpredictable weather conditions, exploitation, and violence. Last year saw the highest number of migrants crossing the Darién Gap with a concerning number of children making the journey, sometimes unaccompanied. While organizations such as UNICEF try to provide assistance to migrants reaching Panama, the government and local indigenous populations cannot sustain the number of migrants entering the country.


 

Glossary


  • FARC - Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. FARC is Colombia’s largest rebel group that was formed in 1964. The group follows a Marxist ideology that operates as an overwhelmingly rural guerrilla organization. Recently, the rebel group formally completed demobilization, marking the end of their 53-year conflict with the Colombian government.

  • Gulf Clan - Colombia’s largest drug trafficking cartel.

  • IOM - International Organization for Migration

  • Migrant - A person who moves from one place to another, especially in order to find work or

  • better living conditions.

  • OCHA - United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

  • UNICEF - United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund

  • UNHCR - United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees


 

Sources


  1. Lucio, José V, et al. “Mortality during migration through the Darién Gap in Panama in 2018–22.” The Lancet, vol. 402, no. 10410, 2023, pp. 1321–1322, https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(23)01635-5.

  2. Mohor, Daniela. “The Darién Gap Migration Crisis in Six Graphs, and One Map.” The New Humanitarian, 15 Jan. 2024, www.thenewhumanitarian.org/maps-and-graphics/2024/01/15/darien-gap-migration-crisis-six-graphs-and-one-map.

  3. OCHA. “Migration through the Darién Jungle: 7 Things to Know about the Perilous Trek.” OCHA, 2023, www.unocha.org/news/migration-through-darien-jungle-7-things-know-about-perilous-trek.

  4. Pappier, Juan. “How the Treacherous Darien Gap Became a Migration Crossroads of the Americas.” Human Rights Watch, 10 Oct. 2023, www.hrw.org/news/2023/10/10/how-treacherous-darien-gap-became-migration-crossroads-americas.

  5. Roy, Diana. “Crossing the Darién Gap: Migrants Risk Death on the Journey to the U.S.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, 2022, www.cfr.org/article/crossing-darien-gap-migrants-risk-death-journey-us.

  6. UNICEF. “Darien Jungle: Child Crossings in 2023 Now Exceed the Whole of 2022.” UNICEF, 2023, www.unicef.org/lac/en/press-release/darien-jungle-child-crossing-2023-exceed-whole-2022-statement-garry-conille-unicef-regional-director.


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