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Darien gap crossings a humanitarian crisis

8 August 20230 comments

A record 250,000 migrants have risked their lives on one of the world’s most dangerous land crossings so far this year.

Desperate migrants from Venezuela, Haiti and elsewhere have the crossed the infamous Darien Gap in the last eight months, a fifth of them children.

Official Panama Government figures show said more than 248,901 people have crossed the perilous 265km sliver of land between Colombia and Panama since January.

Panama says the numbers represent a “humanitarian crisis of major proportions”.

The Darien Gap, once considered so dangerous as to be un-crossable, has come to symbolise the risks migrants and asylum seekers are willing to take for a better life elsewhere.

On the crossing, migrants face steep mountains and tangled rainforest, as well as criminal groups who subject them to extortion and sexual assault.

Of those who crossed so far, more than 100,000 have come from Venezuela, which has experienced a massive exodus as it struggles with economic turmoil and a humanitarian crisis.

About 33,000 Haitians have also made the journey, as have 25,000 people from Ecuador and 8,500 from China.

The UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says that many who perish in the Darien Gap are never documented or found and that others suffer long-term trauma.

“The stories we have heard from those who have crossed the Darien Gap attest to the horrors of this journey,” said Giuseppe Loprete, the IOM’s chief of mission in Panama.

“Many have lost their lives or gone missing, while others come out of it with significant health issues, both physical and mental, to which we and our partners are responding.”

Statistics for crossings in 2022 showed that the number of migrants and asylum seekers travelling through the Darien Gap had nearly doubled from 2021.

Of that total, 32,488 children crossed by foot between January and October of last year, according to the UN children’s rights organisation UNICEF.

Young migrants and asylum seekers have taken to social media to document their experiences and share advice for traversing the dangerous terrain.

Many of those who hazard the journey are heading northwards to destinations like the United States. But in April, the US took steps to stem the flow of migrants and asylum seekers to its southern border.

It announced an agreement with Panamanian and Colombian authorities to stop the “illicit movement of people” through the Darien Gap.

The agreement involved a 60-day campaign to step up immigration enforcement efforts in the region, address poor economic conditions and create new legal migration pathways.

But the plan was met with scepticism from immigration and human rights organisations.

In April, the United Nations warned the number of migrants and asylum seekers navigating the region was on track to hit 400,000 this year, an unprecedented total.