In spite of efforts to discourage migrants from making the perilous Darien crossing from South America to Panama on foot, huge numbers are making the trip anyway, even if they are sick, injured, pregnant, or traveling with small children.
The horrors of crossing through the Darién Gap are well known. People face robberies, assaults, and sexual violence at the hands of criminal groups. On top of this, the terrain is dangerous. Many people tell MSF staff they have witnessed people—sometimes loved ones—drown, fall off cliffs, be immobilized after breaking bones, or be swept away by rivers.
After surviving such a harrowing journey that can last days or longer, people arrive in Panama with wounds and injured limbs, diarrhoea or gastric diseases from drinking river water, and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or trauma after experiencing or witnessing violent events. But the care they need is hard to find.
Despite repeated warnings about the dangers faced along the Darien, there is still no safe and dignified route for migrants.
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 work 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 Jose Lobo, the project coordinator for MSF in Panama’s Darién province. “We can’t keep up.”
A record 330,000 people have already made their way through 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) swathe of tropical jungle.
More than half the migrants are Venezuelans, while a growing number who are fleeing gang warfare and government collapse in Haiti fly to South American and then proceed overland towards the United States.
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 has only deteriorated and blamed Colombia for failing to act and share intelligence.
Sources: MSF. The Guardian.