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Central, South America Grapple With Migrant Surge in Darien Gap

After Panamanian authorities announced that they could shut the land border with Colombia due to the increasing number of migrants crossing the treacherous Darien jungle, Colombian authorities and rights groups sounded the alarm, asserting that the move would exacerbate the already dire humanitarian situation.

The Panamanian government has complained about the “lack of international cooperation” and the failure of Colombian authorities to effectively address the migratory phenomenon along their shared border.

“This has a limit and some southern countries have turned their backs on the problem,” Security Minister Juan Manuel Pino said during a press conference last week.

He further asserted that Panama will take “strong measures and actions” in the coming days to curb migration.

The announcement by Panamanian authorities follows a significant surge in the number of people daring to cross the only overland path connecting Central and South America.

The figures provided by the United Nations are staggering, with 80,000 people passing through the jungle in just one month and more than 330,000 individuals making the journey from the beginning of the year until August. This number far surpasses the 248,000 migrants who crossed the Darien in 2022.

The Panamanian government estimates that by the year’s end, some 400,000 migrants will cross the 575,000-hectare wall of vegetation that has become a corridor for migrants from South America trying to reach the United States through Central America and Mexico.

A dangerous, lawless route

A very dangerous route, the Darien jungle is a lawless area where accidents, crimes, and abuses always go unnoticed.

Travelers encounter wild animals, dangerous river crossings, and steep cliffs. Some even succumb to exhaustion, heat, and humidity. But the most pressing danger, according to Giuseppe Loprete, the UN’s International Organization for Migration’s chief of mission in Panama, is posed by criminal gangs that rob, extort, sexually abuse, and even kill travelers.

“The real problem here is organized crime. The networks of criminals doing this have a lot of money and power and they are determined to profit from this multi-million dollar business,” Loprete told Anadolu.

“All women, 100% of women who we speak to report being victims of sexual or gender-based violence, so it is not a risk, it is an appalling reality,” he added.

Despite these challenges, the migratory flow persists. Many migrants view this route as their only viable option to secure a better future due to the difficult conditions prevailing in their countries of origin.

Causes of migration

“The root causes lie in the political and economic instability of the countries of origin,” Loprete explained.

Almost 80% of migrants still come from Venezuela, where the social and economic crisis is relentless. And now Ecuador is the second most common nationality seen in this unforgiving jungle.

The South American country, once a peaceful nation untouched by the drug trafficking problems of neighboring Colombia and Peru, has now become a place where thousands flee shootings, homicides, kidnappings, and extortions that have become part of daily life.

“Political, economic, and social instability is pushing people to leave everything and go in search of a better life,” according to Loprete.

Haitian nationals represent the third most common nationality among migrants, and there has been an increase in individuals from China, India, and Cameroon seeking the American dream.

“They leave their countries not out of choice,” says the UN expert, “but out of sheer desperation due to conditions of poverty, insecurity, violence, political crises, lack of opportunities, and utter hopelessness.”

“And when they have already left everything behind, returning becomes nearly impossible, leading many to persevere in their journey until they run out of strength.”

‘Border closure unrealistic’

In response to the proposal to close the border, Loprete deems it virtually impossible.

“You cannot physically close a border that does not exist because it is a jungle with no roads, streets, authorities, or official border crossing points between the two countries,” he asserted. “Physically, it cannot be done.”

He warns that such announcements are “unrealistic” and closing the current routes would only result in traffickers looking for new ways to smuggle migrants to other countries. “They will open new routes and then it will be even more challenging for authorities to exert control.”

Despite the life-threatening dangers involved in the journey through the jungle and six other Central American countries ill-equipped to receive migrants, and although a trip can cost thousands of dollars to be paid to traffickers, for transportation, food, and lodging, families continue to take risks in pursuit of a dream that only a few achieve.

Loprete emphasized that very few individuals actually manage to set foot on US soil.

“People normally imagine a difficult journey, but the reality is much more grueling than they can imagine,” he said.

The UN expert added that the persistence of this migratory flow underscores the need to address the root causes of migration in each country and to promote international solutions and cooperation to address this global humanitarian and security crisis.

Source : AA