‘We can’t keep up’: Panama-Colombia border sees record number of migrants

In August, 50,000 people fleeing northward were met with long lines for medical attention, a lack of water and sleeping spaces

Medical non-governmental organizations (NGOs) attending to injured and sick migrants crossing the Darién Gap are increasingly unable to manage the record number of people taking the perilous journey, according to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the United Nation high commissioner for human rights.

In August 50,000 people took the week-long trek through the dense jungle connecting Colombia and Panama, outstretching the capacity of MSF’s staff at medical treatment posts on the Panamanian border.

More than 4,800 migrants were recorded at the three migration centres where MSF works on 22 August alone, causing long queues for medical attention and shortages of safe drinking water and sleeping spaces.

“Humanitarian organisations cannot cope with the increase in the number of people arriving every day,” said José Lobo, the project coordinator for MSF in Panama’s Darién province. “We can’t keep up.”

A record 330,000 people have already traversed the mountainous rainforest on their way to the US so far this year, exceeding the 250,000 recorded for the entirety of 2022.

Footfall jumped 77% in July when 52,530 people undertook the dangerous journey, and has shown no signs of slowing.

Migrants are often malnourished and poorly equipped for the dangers of the swampy jungle, which include steep ravines and flash floods. At least 36 people died on the crossing in 2022, according to the International Organisation for Migration, and those who emerge from the rainforest in Panama often describe seeing decaying bodies along the route.

MSF frequently treats people suffering from severe dehydration as well as from physical injuries, such as broken bones and “jungle rot”, an aggressive fungal infection.

They also provide mental support for the growing number of victims of robberies, assault and sexual violence at the hands of armed groups and bandits who exploit the lawlessness of the 575,000-hectare (1.4m-acre) swath of tropical jungle.

A group of long, skinny, brightly painted canoes disgorge passengers from a muddy river to a sandy bank. In the foreground is a brown-skinned man with a thin black moustache, wearing an orange T-shirt and pink baseball cap. He stands in a short line of other migrants.
Migrants arrive by boat in Lajas Blancas, Darién province, Panama, on 18 August 2023. Photograph: Pipe Teheran/AFP/Getty Images

With the treatment centres overwhelmed, MSF are no longer able to treat all patients and are having to prioritise the most extreme cases, the organisation says.

The recent spike in migration is also causing bottlenecks in small transit towns in Colombia, which are increasingly unsafe, overcrowded and unsanitary.

The Darién Gap is the only land bridge connecting South and Central America, and for many Latin Americans fleeing poverty and socioeconomic crises the jungle is the only route towards the US.

More than half of migrants are Venezuelan while a growing number are fleeing gang warfare and government collapse in Haiti.

On Tuesday, the spokesperson for the UN high commissioner for human rights, Marta Hurtado, urged the region to do more to tackle the rapidly growing humanitarian crises.

“The government of Panama has, with the support of the international community, built two migration reception centres in Darién province and one at the border with Costa Rica to provide shelter, food, healthcare and water and sanitation. However, the large number of people on the move has stretched the capacity of the Panamanian authorities on the ground to continue providing protection and to attend to the humanitarian needs of refugees and migrants,” Hurtado said.

MSF requested that international donors contribute to the humanitarian response and echoed Hurtado’s calls for regional governments to do more to protect human rights.

In April, the United States, Panama and Colombia agreed to crack down on the armed groups who traffic migrants through the Darién Gap and offer legal alternatives, but the Panamanian government said last week the situation had only deteriorated and blamed Colombia for failing to act and share intelligence.

Panamanian officials said they were launching an educational campaign called “Darién is a jungle, not a road” and is considering closing its border with Colombia entirely.

• This article was amended on 6 September 2023. An earlier version said that Marta Hurtado was the UN high commissioner for human rights, rather than a spokesperson.


Luke Taylor in Bogotá

The GuardianTramp

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