Darien Gap: One of the most dangerous migration routes - Doctors of the World

Darien Gap: One of the most dangerous migration routes




2023 is fast-becoming a record-breaking year for migration to the USA through South America. Countries in South and Central America are facing a wide-array of issues including economic collapse, political insecurity, widespread drought, climate crisis, corruption and armed conflict. The conditions have forced many to take an unparalleled risk, crossing the Darien Gap. 

The Darien Gap is one of the most dangerous obstacles on one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes, and had long been considered ‘unpassable’ and ‘uninhabitable’. Spanning 60 miles on the border between Colombia and Panama, the terrain is filled with both natural and man-made threats. As the only overland path connecting Central and South America, many are forced to undertake this perilous route, especially as the U.S.A continues to externalize its borders in attempts to deter migration. 

The United States has mounted serious pressure on Mexico to curb migration, pushing it to expand its visa requirements, so that many are unable to fly directly to the U.S.-Mexico border. Instead, many now fly into Brazil or Ecuador, before making the trek to the Darien Gap. The result has seen a significant uptake in the number of people crossing this route and enduring the risks that come with it. 

Now the U.S.A is once again mounting a policy in Panama and Colombia to curb migration through the Darien Gap. Before we dive into the new policy, it is important to understand the context around the Darien Gap from the migrants who must cross it, to the risks that lie within it. 


Migrants Crossing the Darien Gap


There are a wide range of factors as to why migration has seen such a spike in the last two years. The lifting of COVID-19 restrictions has reopened many travel routes across South America. Worsening conditions in countries like Haiti, Venezuela and Ecuador have left many with no other option but to flee. While some are able to afford a boat to skip the Darien Gap, hundreds of thousands are forced to take this treacherous path.

The Panamanian government recorded more than 248,000 migrants crossing the Darien Gap in 2022, a staggering number compared to over a decade ago when only a few hundred crossed per year.  Over 40,000 of them were children, half of them under 5 years old and at least one thousand were unaccompanied or separated. Experts predict that the rate of crossings will nearly double, reaching 400,000 in 2023 as socioeconomic and security conditions continue to deteriorate in the region. 

The majority of migrants come from Venezuela, followed by Ecuador and Haiti. However, some have come from far away places like Bangladesh, Angola, China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Yemen and even Uzbekistan. Many hail from the list of countries banned by the Trump administration from entering the USA. So far in 2023, nearly 100,000 Venezuelans have crossed, alongside 33,000 Haitians, 25,000 Ecuadorians, and 8,500 Chinese. 

Darien Gap Journey


The journey across the Darien Gap usually takes around 10 or more days, and exposes migrants to serious dangers. 

The environment presents a massive challenge. This is one of the wettest regions in the world and there is thick, deep mud everywhere, making the hike ever more hazardous. Frequent rainfall can trigger landslides in the mountainous terrain.  The jungle is massive and disorienting: it’s easy to get lost and many make the trek with no map and few resources. Temperatures can reach 95°F with high humidity, exacerbating dehydration and hunger. There are poisonous snakes and other creatures that can cause serious bodily harm. Mosquitoes and lack of clean water also increases exposure to disease. 

However, the environment is only a small portion of the dangers that migrants face in the region. The most violent threats come from the gangs, cartels and smugglers that transverse the area. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Gulf Clan, a paramilitary group and Colombia’s largest drug cartel, both make their presence known. They are frequently reported for extorting and sexually assaulting migrants. Some migrants that can afford to pay guides or ‘coyotes’ may end up in the hands of human traffickers that take advantage of their desperation. Robbery, rape and human trafficking are frequently reported in the crossing, however the exact number is difficult to track. Rape, in particular, is used as a weapon by the cartels to humiliate migrant women and establish their dominance. 

Unfortunately, seeking help in the Darien Gap is near impossible. Aside from Senafront, Panama’s national border service, there is no police force nor formal road in the area. Stopping gang violence and trafficking is near impossible, as is finding help in cases of emergency. In 2022, the International Organization for Migration reported at least 36 deaths in the Darien Gap, however the actual figure is likely to be much higher. Many migrants report having to leave loved ones behind in the jungle, due to injury, illness, dehydration or gang violence.



U.S.A, Colombia and Panama: Darien Gap Operation 


The U.S is facing an all-time record of migration to its Southern-border, and the federal government still lacks clear immigration policy. Instead of immigration policy reform, the Biden administration is applying deterrence measures that spread across South and Central America.

In April 2023, ahead of the termination of Title 42, the Biden Administration announced a new deal agreement with Colombia and Panama to ‘shut down’ the Darien Gap route for 60 days. The aim was to curb the influx of migrants coming in as Title 42 came to an end as well as put an end to cartel operations.

The deal included several components including: information sharing, shutting down smuggling and drug trafficking rings, and deterring migrants from crossing. Panama promised to dedicate 1,200  immigration agents, border police, and naval air service members to combat transnational organized crime in the jungle. Another key element was to invest in the region to reduce poverty and create jobs in the Colombian and Panamanian border communities in hopes that it would lead less people to smuggle migrants. 

However, this operation is already facing several setbacks and could increase the risks that migrants face in the already dangerous region. To begin, both the Colombian and Panamanian governments have never established control over the dense jungle bordering the two countries. Tensions have increased between the two countries since the announcement in April. Panama reports that Colombia is failing to comply: it has not slowed the rate of migrants entering the jungle, nor has it shared information.

The policy also lacks understanding of the dire situation migrants are facing. The operation argues that it will create safe, legal pathways for migrants. However, with no clear route nor immigration policy from the U.S.A, many will continue taking the same route. Trying to deter or prevent migration through the route will not stop those who desperately need to get across, rather it will only force them to take bigger risks. 

A large part of the operation will focus on stopping criminal groups. Many experts warn that the criminal groups are incredibly organized and know how to traverse the jungle with ease. 60 days is simply not enough time to dismantle sophisticated criminal organizations, and will likely escalate the already existing violence in the region












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