International bodies have called for urgent intervention in the Darién Gap to prevent a further escalation of a humanitarian crisis as new figures showed that record numbers of people are risking their lives to cross the lawless 100-mile stretch of rainforest between Panama and Colombia.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) also called for the creation of more legal pathways to migrate to the US in order to help reduce irregular migration.
The calls come after the Panamanian government revealed on Monday that 250,000 people took the perilous journey in the first seven months of 2023 – more than the entire total for last year.
About 52,000 people crossed the Darién in July alone, prompting concern among regional authorities as the beginning of the rainy season normally brings a fall in migration.
Civil society groups have been warning of the grave humanitarian and human rights crisis in Darién since the flow of migrants surged in 2021 but the continued increase in numbers – predicted to reach 400,000 this year – means action is even more pressing.
“The unimaginable risks people face, plagued by hostile natural conditions and organized crime, demand a unified response based on human rights,” said Michele Klein Solomon, IOM regional director for Central America, North America and the Caribbean. “It is our collective duty, not only Panama’s, to offer humane and sustainable solutions that prevent future tragedies.”
Many migrants walking the swath of swampy jungle on their way to the US never emerge from the other side of the rainforest due to the treacherous terrain, attack by armed groups and bandits and the sheer physical challenge of the 10-day-trek.
Most are malnourished and poorly equipped when they set out, meaning relatively minor illnesses like fungal infections can quickly become life-threatening.
At least 36 people did not survive the crossing in 2022, according to the IOM, which says many more deaths go undocumented. Migrants frequently describe passing decaying bodies left unburied along the route.
But despite the Darién’s dangers the number of migrants taking the perilous trek continues to climb due to political crises and deteriorating socioeconomic conditions across the region and further afield.
“Multiple interconnected factors, ranging from limited access to fundamental rights and essential services, to the impact of violence and insecurity, continue to push people into displacement,” said UNHCR’s director for the Americas, José Samaniego.
The UN agency is ramping up its operations supporting the Panamanian government’s response, “mainly by providing critical support in areas such as food, shelter and medical care”, Samaniego said.
Margarida Loureiro, deputy representative for UNCHR’s office in Panama, said: “Countries in the region must work together to address the roots of conflict and forced displacement, strengthen asylum systems and expand regularisation and legal alternatives for refugees and migrants.
“This is not a Panama situation. The Darién reflects a protection and humanitarian crisis beyond Panama and Colombia.”
The US Department of Homeland Security launched a joint program with the Colombian and Panamanian governments in April to stop refugees making the crossing and pledged to open new, legal pathways to the US but details have been scarce.
Most migrants are ineligible for the new migration programs so still have little choice but to cross the jungle, experts say.
Refugees come from as far as Afghanistan and China to cross the land bridge connecting Colombia with Panama but the vast majority come from Latin American and the Caribbean.
This year 55% came from Venezuela, where the country’s economic collapse under Nicolás Maduro has forced more than 6 million people to flee deep poverty, insecurity and hunger.
The percentage of Venezuelans living on less than $100 a month rose to 52.6% this year, suggesting the number of people walking the Darién will not drop any time soon.
Fourteen per cent of migrants who made the crossing this year came from Ecuador, which is engulfed in a new wave of cartel-led violence. An equal number came from Haiti which has also been submerged in brutal gang warfare accompanied by “catastrophic” hunger and the re-emergence of cholera.