The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee advances human rights through grassroots collaborations.
This is the Darién Gap
By Deanna Johnson on June 21, 2023
A 60-mile stretch of jungle separating Colombia from Panama has become one of the most treacherous regions in the world. Every day, thousands of individuals—including children—start the long journey through this area in hopes of securing a better life for themselves and their families. However, many who enter the jungle will never come out due to disease, drowning, animal attacks, hunger, criminal attacks, and more. This region is known as the Darién Gap, and it presents one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world currently.
In 2022, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported over 250,000 individuals crossed the Darién Gap, double the amount who crossed the year before. In 2023, the number will likely far surpass that, as Reuters announced 88,000 people have made the journey in the first three months of 2023 alone. Many of the people who enter the jungle have no idea what is in store and as such pack insufficient clothing, food, and other necessities ahead of what can be a 15-day journey through mud, raging rivers, and up mountains. But, as many have recounted, what you pack before entering the jungle does not always matter as thieves, animals, and water threaten to take your provisions away before the end of the journey. Moreover, for those traveling with children and people who cannot walk, the journey is even more difficult as they must carry themselves as well as their travel-mates.
Along the path, fellow travelers try to help as much as they can, making make-shift stretchers for the injured or carrying children up the mountain when their parents cannot, but these good samaritans also have to take care of themselves, and carrying another person up a muddy mountainside is not easy work. Furthermore, when it comes to crossing the Darién, time is of the essence. The longer you stay in the jungle, the more risk you take of running out of food or facing up against criminals. As many who have passed through the Darien have mentioned, corpses and skulls join the garbage, abandoned tents, and discarded children’s toys along the route, warning travelers of the fate that may await them. People have also cited that rape and murder are commonplace along the route. Most who perish in the Darién are never found or reported.
A Colombian cartel governs the route, charging people up to $400 per person—including children and infants—to pass through the jungle. Cartel members also sell food and water at extortionary prices—one bottle of water can cost up to $5—along the route, exploiting the already exhausted and hungry travelers.
At the end of the journey, those who have survived are offered little respite once they arrive at one of Panama’s two migratory reception centers at its southern border. Wait times can be weeks for processing and transport north. These centers are poorly funded and struggle to keep up with the soaring amount of individuals entering every day.
Who are the people who cross?
People crossing the Darién come from all over the world. Most individuals come from Venezuela, Ecuador, Haiti, and Cuba, but growing numbers are also arriving to the jungle from China, Ghana, Afghanistan, and other countries.
For many, this stretch is only a portion of their months- or years-long journey to the United States. For example, many individuals enter South America by air or sea to Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, or Ecuador and set out by bus or on foot along the 18,000 mile Pan-American highway that connects Argentina to Alaska, save for one gap—the Darién. The reason for the gap is that the terrain of the area made road construction impossible and thus left a stretch of jungle without any infrastructure for land navigation.
According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), there has been a seven-fold increase in the number of children crossing the Darien in the first two months of 2023 as compared to the same time period of 2022. It is expected that one in five people crossing the gap are children. While humanitarian efforts are being made to keep up with this unprecedented number of child migrants, the numbers are rising faster than resources can be mobilized.
After the Darién
Once individuals make it through the Darién, and if they are able to continue their journey north through Central America and Mexico, their fate is not secured at the U.S. southern border. Due to Biden’s expansion of regressive US immigration protocols, thousands of people who reach the United States are deported to Mexico or their home country.
As the crisis worsens, organizations like UUSC’s former partner Al Otro Lado, are putting pressure on the Biden administration to support the families crossing into the country. Until then, UUSC continues to support the grassroots organizations that provide critical resources to the individuals who are migrating through the region.
To learn more about the issues that people in migration face as they enter the United States, read UUSC’s analysis of harmful immigration policies that are impacting those at the border.
Image Credit: Adobe & Dreamstime