• A quarter of the migrants passing through the Darien Gap are children
  • Migrants may drown, get lost in the rainforest or fall prey to gunmen or animals
  • 12,000 children have crossed the dangerous Darien Gap in seven months 

The perilous Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama has witnessed significant growth in migrants trying to get to the United States.

According to a UN report, about 46,500 migrants have crossed through the Darien gap in the past four years and a quarter of those were children. The Darien Gap is the only land route out of South America for migrants traveling North. It is a 60-mile long stretch of roadless jungle.

In August, Colombia and Panama limited the number of migrants allowed to cross the Darien gap to 500 per day. Due to the new rule, approximately 14,000 migrants are stranded in Necocli currently. Boat tickets for the village of Acandi are sold out till the end of September. From Acandi, migrants trek through the Panama jungle towards the United States, reported Associated Press.

Migrants from Haiti, Cuba as well as Africa and Asia, who find it difficult to enter the U.S. due to visa restrictions make the difficult trek through South America. According to AP news, most migrants passing through the Darien are Haitians who were working and living in Chile but were left with almost no work when the pandemic hit. Panama’s National Immigration Service estimated that 45,000 people have crossed the Darien Gap this year, including 12,000 children.

Migrants who cross the Darien Gap face the risks of being washed away by the river, getting lost in the rainforest or falling prey to armed groups and wild animals.

“We want God to help us prosper,” Jackie Charles told AP as he was boarding a boat in Necocli. “Our country is in crisis and we need to support our family,” the Haitian said.

Pregnant women arriving at Necocli often seek medical assistance for respiratory and gastrointestinal problems.

“We came from Chile. We have been waiting here for two months and still haven’t been able to get a ticket” Mali, a Haitian who was at the port, told AP. Mali and her family had a budget of $1,600 for the journey to the United States but had already spent more than $2,000 due to being stranded in Necocli. Even though she has some relatives in the U.S. who could send her money, Mali cannot withdraw cash from banks or money transfer companies as she is undocumented in Colombia.

Migrants like Mali, who do not have proper documents, heavily rely on Colombian residents, who often charge a commission between 20% and 50%.

Colombia’s Institute for Family Welfare has set up a program to help families arriving with children at Necocli. The institution weighs and checks children for signs of malnutrition and provides diapers and baby formula. However, such measures are of little relief considering the vast risk awaiting the refugees in the jungle.

According to Doctors Without Borders, which runs a small clinic in the Panamanian village of Bajo Chiquito, children who successfully cross the jungle often suffer from respiratory infection and diarrhea.

“Those migrating through the Darien Gap are not only single men looking for a job, but entire families fleeing violence and poverty from over 50 countries all over the world, with the dream to find better opportunities up north,” states the UNICEF report.

The U.S. government is facing an increased number of minors at its southern border. In March 2021, immigration authorities encountered nearly 18,900 unaccompanied minors, a record high after a plunge in 2020, reported the non-profit, Council on Foreign Relations. About 77% of unaccompanied minors in Federal care are of 15 years of age or older.

A migrant carrying a baby crosses the Chucunaque river after walking for five days in the Darien Gap
A migrant carrying a baby crosses the Chucunaque river after walking for five days in the Darien Gap AFP / Luis ACOSTA