A first step is dangerous jungle crossing from Colombia to Panama


As borders open around the world after months of pandemic-related lockdowns some illegal migration routes are also seeing an uptick in crossings. Muddy paths across the Darien jungle have long been used by smugglers to take migrants from South America to Central America as they make their way to the U.S.

Panamanian immigration officials say the number of people crossing the Darien Gap has reached record levels, with 70,000 migrants making the dangerous trek so far this year and registering at shelters in Panama, the Associated Press reported.

Most of those currently crossing the Darien are Haitians who were living in Brazil and Chile and were left with little work due to the pandemic. Visa requirements make it almost impossible for low-income migrants from Haiti to take flights to Panama, Mexico or the United States. So many make the dangerous trek across the jungle in the hopes of starting a new life in the U.S.

“The jungle is very tough, we just walk without a precise idea of where we’re headed,” said Davidson Lafleur, a 24-year-old Haitian, who had  lived in Chile for three years, and was traveling to the U.S. with his wife and their 11-month old daughter.

In August, Colombia and Panama agreed to limit the number of migrants crossing the Darien each day in a bid to ease pressure on shelters on the Panamanian side of the jungle. But this created bottlenecks and confusion on the Colombian side. Every day hundreds of migrants arrive in the town of Necocli on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, where they need to catch a boat that will take them across the Gulf of Uraba.

Necocli’s mayor, Jorge Tobon, says 1,000 to 1,500 migrants are arriving in the town each day, but only 500 are allowed to leave on boats heading across the gulf and toward the Panamanian border due to the recent agreement between the countries. Tobon says more than 14,000 migrants are currently stuck in the town, with boat tickets sold out until the end of this month.

Once migrants cross into Panama they are often abandoned by Colombian guides, who do not want to risk being captured abroad for human trafficking. Bandits often target groups of migrants and steal their possessions.

According to Doctors Without Borders, which runs a health post in the village of Bajo Chiquito on the Panamanian side of the Darien, 96 women were sexually assaulted by bandits in the months of May and July, while they tried to cross the jungle.

According to Panamanian officials more than 20,000 people crossed the Darien jungle on foot in August, accounting for almost a third of all crossings this year.

“Fear is always with us,” Lafleur said as he crossed a river. “But we have no choice but to keep on going.”


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