Bajo Chiquito, 22 May 2023 – Drenched in sweat and carrying a bag with a tent, Wilmer, a 26-year-old farmer from Venezuela, arrives on a narrow wooden boat in Bajo Chiquito, Panama, after a five-day-trek through one of the most dangerous and daunting migratory routes in the world: The Darien jungle.
In front of him and behind, scores of single-file boats packed with as many as 16 men, women, and children emerge from the forest along the muddy waters of the Turquesa river. The boats arrive from the 10,000-square-mile stretch of jungle, rugged mountains, raging rivers, swamp, and insect bites that spans both sides of the border between Colombia and Panama.
Even for Wilmer, young and fit, the trek was an endurance test. “The trip was extremely tough; I barely slept. Look at me, I am in good physical shape, and it was life-threatening. Imagine how it is for pregnant women and children; it’s an extreme challenge. I do not recommend that anyone cross this on foot,” he said as he remembered how he jumped into a turbulent river to rescue a Haitian child who was engulfed by the current.
Wilmer left Maracaibo, on the Caribbean coast of Venezuela, with five friends and USD 450, a year’s worth of family savings, hoping to get a better job in the north and help his parents and three brothers left behind.
Each migrant represents a life of great hardship. During the long trek through the jungle, children and families are exposed to multiple forms of violence, including sexual abuse and exploitation, a lack of safe water and food, wild animal attacks, and overflowing rivers.
Scaling up efforts
According to statistics from the Government of Panama, from January to April 2023, a record number of 148,000 people crossed the Darien. Whether fleeing poverty or violence, the dream of a better life, good jobs, and the chance to send money home to relatives left behind pushed them to embark on the perilous journey despite the considerable dangers.
Over the years, the Darien has become a common transit point for migrants heading north. The latest figures for 2023 vastly surpass the high numbers of 2022, when 258,000 people crossed throughout the year. Many are poorly equipped for the two to ten days trek during which at least 137 migrants died or disappeared last year, according to Missing Migrants Project.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) works with the Panamanian government and is increasing efforts to provide humanitarian assistance, protection, and information to people in transit. The Organization also supports remote indigenous host communities by scaling its presence at the borders with Colombia and Costa Rica, and also in Panama City.
“The number of migrants crossing the Darien Gap has hit all-time highs this year. They face many risks during their journey through the jungle, often showing signs of physical and mental trauma. IOM is there to support the Panamanian government to meet migrants’ basic needs, such as accommodation, protection, information, and psychosocial support,” said Etzaida Rios, IOM Community Outreach Officer in Darien.
Despite the challenges, migrants are welcomed in the communities they pass by. “The influx of migration has overwhelmed the capacity of the community to provide basic services in response to their specific needs, but we are doing what we can to help them,” says Nelson Aji, Community Leader in Bajo Chiquito, a Panamanian indigenous Embera-Wounaan community of 300-plus people that currently receives more than 1,000 migrants in transit daily; however, the influx varies through the year.
Under a blazing sun, dozens of weary migrants feel relief, pitching tents in the community and lighting camping stoves to cook while others splashed in the nearby river and washed the mud from their arms, feet, and legs.
“It was a nightmare, but I made it, finally I survived the Darien jungle, but many did not. The smell of decomposing bodies… I cannot forget the smell. I was robbed. A woman in my group was killed for resisting rape. I could do nothing to help,” said 56-year-old Antonio, perspiring heavily and still breathless as he took his last steps into the community, exhausted, hungry, and dehydrated, lugging a heavy backpack through the forest. He left Haiti fleeing poverty and violence and hopes to meet one of his daughters who lives in Miami.
Three continents converge
The dreams and hopes of migrants from three continents converge in this perilous jungle, bound together with the same destination. Some left their home countries years ago to start a new life in South America. But socio-economic disparities, limited access to regularization alternatives, stigma, discrimination, and the post-COVID-19 pandemic have caused them to lose their jobs. Now they are facing impossible options, such as migrating once again.
Among the newly arrived migrants is Angelis, 22, an Ecuadorian mother traveling with Jose, her Venezuelan husband, and a one-year-old child. They sold everything they had to afford food and hitchhiked part of the way from Ecuador.
“Our guide left us alone after paying him. We walked alone with a baby for 12 hours every day. We still have a long way to go with no money left,” she said in tears remembering the family’s trek through the rainforest. “I wouldn’t advise anyone to cross that jungle, no matter how many dreams they have and even less with a child; one thing is what one tells you and another thing is what one lives.” They hope to join family members already living in the United States.
There is also a group of young men from Pakistan. Their trip began three months ago, leaving Pakistan’s capital by plane. “It’s a long journey,” said Chaudhry, adding that he aims to join his other brothers already living in California. “It’s hard to live in Pakistan, and there are no opportunities for young people,” he said with emotion.
Fikru, a 38-year-old construction worker from Eritrea, worked in Brazil as a painter for several years before deciding to head north. He hopes to get a better job and send money home to help his family. “My American dream is to help my family so my sons can fulfill their dreams,” he said.
Migrants of over 40 nationalities have crossed the Darien Gap this year. They come from American, Asian, and African nations, such as Venezuela, Haiti, Ecuador, China, India, Afghanistan, Cameroon, and Somalia. Most of them are from Venezuela, but there has also been an increase in the number of Haitian, Ecuadorian, and Chinese migrants.
“There are better opportunities outside my country. We are all looking for greener pastures, and the possibility of a better life is there. My goal is to buy my wife and my children a house in Haiti,” said Antonio, resting on the riverbank, thinking about the next stage of his journey.
This story was written by Gema Cortes, IOM Media and Communications Unit, Office of the Special Envoy for the Regional Response to the Venezuela Situation.