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How the Treacherous Darien Gap Became a Migration Crossroads of the Americas

How the Treacherous Darien Gap Became a Migration Crossroads of the Americas

Migrants in the Darien Gap village of Canaan Membrillo, Panama.

Migrants in the Darien Gap village of Canaan Membrillo, Panama. (Photo: Caitlyn Yates)

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From the tundra abutting the Arctic Ocean in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Tierra del Fuego off the southern tip of the South American mainland, the Pan-American Highway allows a driver to almost cover the length of the Americas on a single road. The stretch of asphalt is broken in only one place: the roughly 60-mile Darien Gap. The highway was never completed through the approximately 10,000-square-mile tropical jungle that covers the northernmost zone of Colombia and a significant portion of Panama’s southernmost province. Indeed, no road runs through it at all. Nor are there bridges, cellphone service, or other infrastructure that would facilitate easy crossing. The region hosts some of the highest mountain ridges in Panama, as well as hundreds of rivers and heavily forested valleys. It is inhabited only sparsely, mostly by Indigenous communities and criminal gangs that benefit from the absence of government authorities.

Yet for all that it lacks, the Darien Gap has in recent years become a major transit route for irregular migration. Despite the jungle’s dangers and immense hurdles, it remains the only land-based pathway connecting South America to Central America. For asylum seekers and other migrants heading to the United States and other northern destinations, as dangerous as it is, the Darien Gap has lately become the primary passageway.

Movement in and through the Darien Gap is not entirely new. Panamanian authorities have been tracking some migrant arrivals since 2010, and there are recorded cases of crossings more than a decade prior. However, until 2021 the numbers of people crossing the jungle were relatively inconsequential in comparison with other migratory pathways in the Americas. That year, more than 130,000 migrants successfully crossed the jungle on foot, up from an average of fewer than 11,000 per year during the previous decade. In 2022, arrivals jumped to almost 250,000 people. That number was surpassed in just the first eight months of 2023, and more than 500,000 people are on pace to cross by the end of this year.

In response, governments on both sides of the border have agreed to address migration through the Darien in recent months. They have also received significant support and pressure from the United States, where leaders see the jungle as a chokepoint to prevent future migrant arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border. But the increasing movement of individuals through the Darien, even after the governments of Colombia, Panama, and the United States have vowed to crack down, demonstrates that policies to thwart migration are going to encounter steep challenges. More than 81,000 people were recorded crossing the Darien Gap in August, according to data obtained by the authors—the highest number on record.

This article focuses on the dynamics in and through Panama and Colombia’s shared border region, based on on-the-ground research by the authors. In particular, it focuses on the demographic patterns of those who cross, official responses, and the limited probability that governments can close off this pathway. Understanding the context, dynamics, and challenges is critical to any discussion of regional migration and protection policies in Latin America.

Evolving Trends

The initial use of the Darien Gap as a migration crossing point, beginning in the late 1990s, was largely by Colombians fleeing internal conflict and violence. Only in 2010 did Panama officially begin registering migrant crossings. From 2010 through 2014, officials recorded an average of approximately 2,400 crossings per year. The first real uptick took place in 2015 and 2016, when roughly 30,000 annual arrivals were recorded. After a temporary drop, the number has almost doubled annually since 2021, and 2023 appears to be no exception.

Figure 1. Migrants Recorded Crossing the Darien Gap, 2010-23*

* Data for 2023 are a projection based on the first eight months of the year.
Sources: Servicio Nacional de Migración (SNM), “Tránsito Irregular por Daríen, 2010-2019,” accessed August 30, 2023, available online; SNM, “Tránsito Irregular por Daríen, 2020,” accessed August 30, 2023, available online; SNM, “Tránsito Irregular por Daríen, 2021,” accessed August 30, 2023, available online; SNM, “Tránsito Irregular por Daríen, 2022,” accessed August 30, 2023, available online; SNM, “Tránsito Irregular por Daríen, 2023,” accessed August 30, 2023, available online; additional data obtained by the authors.

There are multiple reasons for this increase. Many migrants in South America and the Caribbean face difficulties getting visas to Mexico and Central American countries and therefore lack alternative pathways to reach North America. As the route through the Darien has become more established, migrants have shared information about the best ways to cross it. Perhaps most importantly, though, are the multiple and compounding drivers of migration in the Americas and beyond. Many people are being driven to leave their homes by factors such as repression and economic collapse in Venezuela, insecurity and political instability in Ecuador, and multiple crises in Haiti.

Initially, migrants crossing the Darien Gap tended to be from Haiti or Cuba. From 2015 through 2021, approximately 79 percent of all arrivals were Haitian, Cuban, or the Brazilian- and Chilean-born children of Haitian migrants who had moved to South America in previous years. In 2022, though, the demographics changed (see Figure 2). For the first time, most of those arriving in Panama after crossing the jungle were from Venezuela. Slightly more than 3,000 Venezuelans were recorded as having crossed the Darien between 2010 and 2021; in 2022, the number exceeded 150,000. One reason for the precipitous increase was the decision by Mexico and several Central American countries to require visas for Venezuelans that year, spurring many who were unable to secure legal entry to instead cross through the Darien.

The number of Venezuelan crossings decreased significantly in the last two months of 2022, coinciding with the U.S. government’s announcement of a humanitarian parole program and the application of the U.S. Title 42 public-health-related expulsions policy to Venezuelans. However, the parole program requires recipients to have a sponsor already residing within the United States, fly into the country, and meet other conditions, which are limiting for some migrants who have minimal or nonexistent U.S. social networks. As such, the flow of Venezuelans using the Darien route has increased again, with more than 209,000 crossing from January through August 2023, the most of any group. Other top nationalities crossing through the first eight months of 2023 were Ecuadorians (nearly 45,000) and Haitians (slightly more than 35,000). Migrants from Venezuela, Ecuador, and Haiti have accounted for about 84 percent of all people crossing the Darien Gap so far in 2023.

Figure 2. Shares of Migrants Crossing the Darien Gap by Nationality, 2015-23*

* Data for 2023 are as of the first eight months of the calendar year.
Sources: SNM, “Tránsito Irregular por Daríen, 2010-2019;” SNM, “Tránsito Irregular por Daríen, 2020;” SNM, “Tránsito Irregular por Daríen, 2021;” SNM, “Tránsito Irregular por Daríen, 2022;” SNM, “Tránsito Irregular por Daríen, 2023;” additional data obtained by the authors.

One other notable trend in the Darien has been the movement of people from outside the Western Hemisphere—particularly Central and West Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia—who first travel to South America and use the Darien to reach the United States or Canada. Since 2015, Panama has registered more than 100,000 extracontinental migrants from at least 60 African and Asian countries. In fact, in 2017 and 2018 most migrants through the Darien originated in Asia, and the most common nationalities were Indian, Nepalese, Bangladeshi, and Cameroonian. In 2023, country-of-origin trends have shifted, with the most common extracontinental nationalities now including Chinese (more than 13,000 through the first eight months of the year), Indian (3,300), and Afghan (2,600).

A particularly worrying development is the increase in the number of children crossing the gap. While roughly 16 percent of crossers in 2022 were children under age 18, the percentage neared 21 percent between January and August 2023, with nearly 64,000 children under 18 crossing in those eight months. Additionally, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) reported in May that, on average, eight to ten unaccompanied children were crossing the Darien each day. Many travel with a guardian who is not a parent or have been separated from their parents while trekking through the jungle. Based on the authors’ interviews with migrants and officials, only a small portion appear to be traveling alone.

Situation in the Darien Gap

The Darien Gap is one of the most treacherous migration pathways in the world, made even more so by the dearth of government and humanitarian assistance in the jungle. To begin, migrants must take a ferry across the Gulf of Urabá from the Colombian city of Necoclí to one of two small towns on the outskirts of the Darien: Acandí or Capurganá. From there, asylum seekers and other migrants can use multiple routes to cross, often assisted by smugglers known locally as “guides.” The routes are not fixed and have varied in recent years, depending on, among other factors, restrictions imposed by Panamanian authorities and the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo), an armed group that operates in northern Colombia and has been increasingly involved in regulating passage through the Darien.

The routes have different “fares,” which means that migrants with fewer resources—often Haitians and Venezuelans—are forced to take longer and more dangerous paths. Oftentimes these fees are in the range of a couple hundred U.S. dollars. Meanwhile others who can pay more—such as many Chinese—take shorter and safer routes. The more expensive routes can range between U.S. $1,000 and U.S. $2,000 per person.

Primarily land-based routes are the least expensive pathway and take between four and ten days on average. There were two primary land-based routes as of this writing, running from Acandí to Bajo Chiquito to Lajas Blancas and from Capurganá to Canaan Membrillo to San Vicente (see Figure 3). Both routes are extremely difficult, requiring those crossing to hike up mountains, down valleys, and across rivers. There is no cellphone signal in the jungle, so migrants must rely on one another and, for those who pay, guides.

There are also two maritime routes, which are more expensive and used less frequently. These routes move migrants into Panamanian territory via the sea before docking and eventually taking shorter journeys on foot through the jungle. One route starts on the Caribbean side from Capurganá and moves northward to stopover points known as Carreto or Caledonia. The other begins on the Pacific side, leaving from Juradó, Colombia before reaching Jaque or Puerto Quimba, Panama. These are quicker and safer options. Still, all migrants will have to hike through the jungle for some part of the journey.

Figure 3. Major Routes through the Darien Gap

Source: MPI artist rendering.

Hazards along the Way

Regardless of the route, the journey is extremely dangerous, primarily because of the Darien’s geography. Most crossers initially enter the jungle with at least a tent or tarp, rain boots, water, and some food. However, these items get heavy quickly, and people cannot carry enough supplies for the whole journey. They frequently run out of water after a day or two and run out of food not long after that. When that happens, they typically rely on water from the many rivers, which is often not clean, making many migrants sick and severely dehydrated. Many also break bones or dislocate joints while hiking the difficult terrain. Some drown while trying to ford the rivers, due to strong currents and frequent flash flooding.

A recent report by one of the authors found that 253 migrants died or went missing in the Darien Gap between 2014 and 2021. Panamanian authorities have reported finding 124 bodies in the gap between January 2021 and April 2023. These figures most likely represent only a fraction of the number of deaths, based on the authors’ interviews with migrants and humanitarian workers. Drowning seems to be the primary cause of death, though exposure and illnesses were also common.

There are also dangers from other humans. Criminals who operate in the jungle and one-off bandits threaten and rob migrants. Doctors Without Borders has treated more than 200 victims of sexual violence so far this year, most of them women and girls, including cases of rape and sexual abuse committed during robberies.

Services in Panama

After hiking through most of the jungle, migrants reach one of two small Indigenous communities: Bajo Chiquito or Canaan Membrillo, both in Panama. Here, migrants are received and registered by Panama’s National Migration Service (Servicio Nacional de Migración, SNM). In Canaan Membrillo, which has a population of 430, a prosecutor has been tasked with registering abuses against migrants. Yet many face significant obstacles to reporting incidents of sexual violence and other crimes, since the prosecutor lacks capacity and proper interpretation services. The lack of interpretation is a particular challenge for the large numbers of migrants from Haiti or elsewhere for whom Spanish is not a native language.

Since August 2022, the government has stationed a doctor and a nurse in Canaan Membrillo; the medical facility, however, has limited capacity and staff cannot attend to serious emergencies, including those requiring x-rays. A doctor and a nurse are also stationed in the 200-person Bajo Chiquito community. But during the authors’ visits to the communities in 2023, medical posts were running out of basic medicines including ibuprofen.

The day after reaching these communities, migrants are sent in canoes (known locally as piraguas) to one of two Migrant Reception Stations (Estaciones de Recepción Migratoria, ERM): Lajas Blancas or San Vicente. The camps are run by Panama’s Security Ministry through the SNM and border patrol, known as SENAFRONT (Servicio Nacional de Fronteras). The government’s work in the camps includes ensuring safety, providing meals, offering accommodation, and organizing onward bus transit. While most migrants leave the camp within a matter of hours, those without money, who are awaiting family members still in the jungle, or who are injured or sick may stay for several days.

Conditions in the camps are poor. Lajas Blancas has two areas divided by a wire fence: one in which humanitarian organizations provide aid, and another with cots for migrants in little steel-sheet-roofed wooden shacks erected by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). San Vicente reopened in November 2022 after undergoing U.S. $2.2 million in upgrades, with modular containers featuring bunk beds where 544 people can sleep. In both places, the often-stifling heat means many prefer to sleep in their own tents. The sleeping quarters are frequently unclean, and in the rainy season, mud often cakes any accommodation.

Panama’s child protection agency, known as SENNIAF (Secretaría Nacional de Niñez, Adolescencia y Familia), does not have a presence in the Indigenous communities or the migration centers. In the communities, unaccompanied children are often left in the custody of a SENAFRONT agent. Once they arrive in the migration centers, some children are sent to a UNICEF-supported house to wait until their parents arrive or until a judge rules whether they can continue their journey with another guardian. However, the house only accommodates children under age 13 and, in exceptional cases, girls between the ages of 14 and 17. More than 240 children stayed there between January 2021 and March 2023.

In addition to the government presence, a number of international organizations have permanent representation in the camps, including Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, the Panamanian Red Cross, and HIAS. These organizations primarily offer basic first aid, psychological services, and general information about moving onward along the route.

While useful, the services and support available to those moving through the camps are wholly insufficient given the limited resources, the vast numbers of crossers, and the extremely perilous nature of the journey. Rarely are there enough government-provided meals for all migrants, so many go without. Additionally, there are not enough government accommodations for the numbers arriving, so many sleep in tents or outside. Medical care is limited primarily to first aid-level treatment, without access to trauma-level care or more than basic-level medications. Clean drinking water is frequently unavailable, as is running water for bathing or washing clothes. Additionally, there are no interpreters in the centers, which poses a serious problem for migrants from dozens of nationalities who are unable to understand the camp dynamics, access medical services, or report a crime, death, or missing person.

Can Governments Close the Darien Gap?

As the jungle has proven to be permeable, governments have sought to clamp down on passage. Since arrivals began to increase in late 2015, Panama developed a migration enforcement policy known as “controlled flow” (flujo controlado), which among other things limited the number of migrants who could pass through each day. As part of this strategy, Panamanian authorities severely restrict migrants’ ability to leave the Indigenous communities or the migration centers on their own, often claiming that migrants could be arrested or abused by criminal groups. In May 2022, the authors saw authorities tell asylum seekers and other migrants they were not allowed to leave on their own, but failed to specify which law, if any, established such restrictions.

In collaboration with Costa Rica, Panama developed the controlled flow policy to transfer migrants from the Darien province to Los Planes de Gualaca in northern Panama and discourage them from remaining in the country. At first, only approximately 100 people per day were permitted to board buses and head northward with a ticket (costing U.S. $40). However, as the number of migrants increased, Panamanian officials offered more buses. At the current peak of arrivals, between 40 and 60 buses have been leaving each day. Given that the objective of the policy is to move migrants onward, it is very difficult for people to request asylum in Panama, and even rarer for applications to be approved.

Thus, many analysts were shocked to see Colombia and Panama in April formally agree on a statement that would make it harder for migrants to travel northward. The agreement was struck with support from the United States and followed a February trip by U.S. officials to the Darien Gap. The formal announcement mentioned three primary objectives: to end the irregular movement of goods and people through the Darien, to open more legal pathways for migrants to reach the United States, and to temporarily increase services for residents on both sides of the border during a 60-day period.

Irregular migration has actually significantly increased since April, although countries have made some announcements in accordance with the agreement. In June, Panama announced the implementation of Operation Shield to combat criminal groups and migrant smuggling in the Darien Gap, fulfilling at least part of one objective. And the United States has committed to offering alternative legal pathways for some migrants who might otherwise cross the Darien, opening Safe Mobility Offices in Colombia to consider nationals from Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela for humanitarian protection or other legal pathways (similar offices have been opened in Costa Rica and Guatemala). However, only one day after the Safe Mobility Office in Colombia began taking applications, the website temporarily closed to new registrants, citing the number of applications received. And by late August 2023, Panamanian leaders were expressing frustration with Colombia over an alleged lack of cooperation in the Darien. The United States also announced a family reunification program for some Colombians. But as of September, no concrete action has been taken to increase services for border-area residents.

As such, the odds seem stacked against efforts to entirely halt trans-Darien movement. Even if they were not, research shows that blocking established pathways does not end migration, but rather pushes people towards new, more dangerous routes. If the more established land passages became inaccessible, it is likely that the maritime routes would be used more frequently, as would other scarcely traveled interior routes deeper in the jungle. The journey through the Darien would also likely become more expensive, as more migrants would be pushed to pay for guides to navigate the jungle’s geography and around authorities.

Looking Forward

Migration in and through the Darien Gap is unlikely to end, at least in the near future. The pathway is already one of last resort. Attempting to dissuade asylum seekers and other migrants from crossing or closing off the most established routes is unlikely to deter the thousands already in line for the journey and unknown numbers of future crossers.

A crucial reason for this is that the push factors prompting individuals to make this journey have not disappeared. In fact, many of the crises compelling people to leave their countries have only worsened in recent months and years. Thus, should authorities ramp up their efforts to halt migration through the Darien, what is most likely to change are the routes people take, the risks they face, and the reception they receive on both sides of the border. The needs of displaced people to take these journeys will almost surely remain.

Rather than trying to close the border or viewing migrants as the challenge, governments would do better to train their focus on the challenges that people on the move face in the Darien Gap and in their origin countries. The United States and other countries could continue creating legal pathways for more diverse groups of migrants. Advocates have called for governments in South America to bolster access to asylum and refugee status for people fleeing persecution, and increase integration efforts for all types of newcomers. And all concerned governments could direct their efforts to make the region safer for those crossing. Interpreters and translated documents would help migrants access services and information and enable them to feel more secure on their journeys. Although the Darien lacks an actual road, it is increasingly no longer a gap in the migration route through the Americas. Individuals passing through have made this reality clear; governments have yet to catch up—and protect the people risking their lives there.

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