The Darien, a gap between hope and despair – Panama


San Vicente, April 4, 2022 – With a bag full of hopes and dreams, Iriana Ureña, a 32-year-old mother of two from Venezuela, arrived at a migrant reception station (ERM) in San Vicente, edge of the Darien Gap. The look in her eyes showing the pain of a mother who would do anything to protect her children.

Iriana and her husband Eduardo decided to make the trip to northern Venezuela through the jungle with their two children in search of better opportunities. The decision to leave their country, home, family, friends and life’s work to start all over again was difficult but necessary for them and for many other migrants. They were hungry, dehydrated and exhausted when they arrived at the station.

“The road was not easy, I felt that our lives were in danger. It was tough because we saw some very ugly things along the way, things I never thought I would see in my life,” Iriana said.

According to statistics from the Panama Migration Services, nearly 134,000 people, 80% of them Haitians, risked their lives in the dense jungle in 2021. This is a record number of people crossing the rectangle of 10 000 square miles of trackless jungle, rugged mountains, turbulent rivers, swamps and deadly snakes stretching both sides of the Colombia-Panama border. Today, the journey through the breach is made more perilous by the criminal groups and smugglers who control the area, often extorting and sometimes sexually assaulting migrants.

However, the dynamic changes because the jungle no longer sounds Creole. The Haitians, who took this dangerous path en masse, are no longer in the majority. They are still trying to cross from Colombia to the United States, but the Spaniards and the resounding “panas” of the Venezuelan migrants are now prevailing on the trail.

The number of Venezuelans crossing the Darien Gap in the first two months of 2022 (some 2,497) has almost reached the total total for 2021 (2,819), becoming the main group crossing the heart of the rainforest. But this list also includes Cuban, Haitian, Senegalese and Uzbek nationals, among others.

Increase in aid

Emerging from the breach, most migrants pass through the communities of Bajo Chiquito or Canaan Membrillo before making their way on foot or in community boats along the muddy waters of the Chucunaque River. The probability of suffering physical and psychological violence is very high throughout the course.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is working with the government in coordination with other agencies to provide assistance to people in transit and host communities.

“Meeting the needs of migrants in irregular transit through Panama poses significant challenges mainly related to funding,” says Santiago Paz, Head of IOM Panama and Head of the Global Administrative Center (PAC) in Panama. “In this sense, it is urgent to redouble coordination between governments and international cooperation to meet the humanitarian needs of populations in transit”.

In recent years, the Panamanian government has put in place infrastructure to temporarily house the transiting population and meet the humanitarian needs of this growing migrant population. With technical support from IOM and other international organizations, Panama has set up three ERMs, where migrants find accommodation and food, and where potential COVID-19 cases are monitored.

Among the newly arrived migrants are Johainy, a mother from Venezuela, and her one-year-old baby.

“We encountered a lot of difficulties, we were robbed and saw deaths along the way. Although we prepared as much as possible by watching many videos on the course, nothing could fully prepare us for what we experienced in the forest.

Mariel Rodriguez, cultural promoter for IOM Panama based in Darien, works with migrants. She walks around the center to guide and inform migrants. “The migrants we assist in the ERM are in a situation of extreme vulnerability and have very varied needs, ranging from knowing in which country they are arriving, to medical assistance, clothing or basic hygiene products. The IOM team responds to these needs and coordinates with other government agencies and institutions to ensure access to available services.

With a population of around 7,000, the town of Meteti has swelled in recent years with migrants – mostly Venezuelans, like Iriana, as well as Cubans, South Americans, Africans, South Asians and foreigners. others, all aimed at the United States or Canada.

IOM balanced the needs of migrants and host communities on the Panama-Colombia border with financial and political support. This has reduced the vulnerability of migrants and helped those who welcome them.

Go beyond the gap in search of a better life

For thousands of migrants around the world, the perilous, roadless jungle becomes a path of desperate hope northward in search of a better life. A babble of languages ​​mixes in the vast jungle, from which some never come out alive, even if the death toll is unclear. They come from Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba, but also from many countries in Africa and Asia. Many have often passed through South American countries after working for months or even years.

Migrants continue to stream through the Darien Gap, many with stories or signs of trauma, like Shahzad from Pakistan (“We found dead bodies and skulls during the march”) or Esther, who arrived exhausted, with blisters on bloody feet, and carried in the hand by other people.

Others arrived with stories of hope. “The hike was extremely difficult. I gave birth and had my baby Hamdi in the middle of the forest with the only help of my husband. I had to drink water from the river for days. However, the newcomer has given the whole family a new sign of hope that I did not expect,” said Bijou Ziena Kalunga, 33, from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Or tears of joy when families are reunited after days apart in the jungle, like Venezuelan William, Jorgeis and a six-month-old baby. “I was really sad and kept praying for my husband to come. I can’t say how happy I am to have him back,” Jorgeis said.

In the docking station, migrants crowd around every available electrical outlet, charging their phones while typing WhatsApp to loved ones back home. They talk about their dangerous path through the forest and their plans and hopes for the future.

Serigne Nor Sarr, 33, has modest ambitions. “My hope for the future is to work, start a family and live a very simple life,” he said, standing outside his temporary shelter. The young Senegalese has already spent more than four years in Brazil where he worked to earn enough money for the trip. “We were treated well there,” he said, “but I always planned to leave one day for my dream destination in the United States.”

It’s a dream shared by thousands of people who arrive in Meteti – a place where some of the world’s toughest stories meet some of the world’s kindest hearts. “The risk is worth it, if it means I can get to the United States and start a new life with my family,” Iriana whispered with a hopeful look.

*The San Vicente ERM was built by the Government of Panama with the support of international cooperation, intergovernmental organizations, civil society and the private sector. San Vicente provides dignified conditions in which physical separation and other biosecurity measures can be maintained to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.


This story was written by Gema Cortes, IOM Media and Communications Unit, Office of the Special Envoy for the Regional Response to the situation in Venezuela.


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