The humanitarian crisis in Darién Gap has reached new heights as medical NGOs are overwhelmed by the record numbers of people risking their lives to cross the lawless strip of jungle in Latin America en route to the US.
An exodus of Venezuelans fleeing socioeconomic collapse has led to more people embarking on the perilous journey across the only land bridge connecting South and North America so far this year than in the entirety of 2021, Panamanian authorities say.
“Unfortunately we are not able to treat all of the victims,” said Conrado Hincapié, a project coordinator in Darién with the charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
More than 150,000 people have reached Panama from Colombia by traversing the Darién this year, according to Panama’s national migration service, exceeding the previous record of 133,000 who made the journey in 2021.
Crossing the Darién Gap – which straddles Panama and Colombia – is one of the most dangerous journeys on the planet for experienced survivalists, and migrants are usually poorly equipped to make the trek. It can take up to a week on foot and some succumb to the jungle’s flash floods, steep ravines and turbulent rivers.
As well as the natural dangers of the rainforest, those who risk the journey are at the whim of violent gangs who control the jungle corridor and exploit those fleeing poverty and danger.
For many people, crossing the Darién is the only affordable way north to the US where they seek better lives.
The UN says the spike in the number of migrants in recent months has led to growing reports of people traffickers sexually abusing people and robbing them of the little cash and clothes they have stuffed in their backpacks.
The Panama representative for the UN’s refugee agency, Philippa Candler, says the average person forced to cross the Darién is poorer because of the cost of living crisis in Latin America, which makes them more vulnerable to exploitation by the armed gangs who are the region’s de facto authority.
“Some of the recent incidents that we’ve heard about are really quite horrendous,” she said.
One in three interviewed by the UN said they were mistreated or abused in the jungle. The agency is also receiving increasingly shocking reports of human rights abuses, including the shooting of a six-year-old child for screaming as gang members sexually assaulted his mother.
Medical NGOs racing to treat people as they emerge from the forest in Panama have been overwhelmed by the unprecedented footfall. About 48,000 have made the 37-mile (60km) trek this month, according to Panamanian authorities.
About 30% of them are women, according to the UN, and a growing number are being forced to have sex as a form of payment to the “coyotes” guiding them, Hincapié says.
In the past two weeks there has also been a “great increase in the number of children and really small babies of around six, seven and eight months old”, he added.
As well as primary care for flesh wounds and tropical diseases, NGOs are providing psychological support and contraception to the growing number of women raped by traffickers.
About 1,200 people a day are passing through San Vicente, a village on the Panamanian side of the jungle. Around 200-300 are treated by MSF each day.
The sharp rise in migration is also straining services on the Colombian side of the border. Unable to secure a boat heading towards the Darién, up to 10,000 are estimated to be stranded on the beaches of Necoclí, a transit town on Colombia’s Gulf of Urabá.
The wave of migration is driven by the growing number of people fleeing poverty and insecurity in Venezuela, the UN says.
While most who traversed the Darién last year were the Haitian diaspora leaving other Latin American countries when the pandemic struck, at least 70% of people making the journey this year are Venezuelan. More than half of those are heading directly to the US.