The Darién Gap: migrant route of last resort

Jan 18, 2022
“Deep in the jungle [of the Darién Gap], robbery, rape and human trafficking are as dangerous as wild animals, insects and a lack of clean water,” Jean Gough, UNICEF director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Darién Gap is a roadless, lawless stretch of mountainous rainforest straddling Colombia and Panama. For centuries, it’s held the reputation of being virtually uncrossable, by locals and well-equipped visitors alike.
 
Yet in 2021, nearly 100,000 migrants – mostly from Haiti, Cuba and Venezuela – bargained their lives to cross the Darién Gap on foot. More than 19,000 were children. Dozens of people of all ages perished along the way.
 
Many of those who emerge from the jungle say they wish they’d never entered. What they experienced, what they witnessed, will haunt them for the rest of their lives. So why even attempt the journey?
 
Because the Darién Gap is the only overland route out of South America. The migrants who cross it are desperately poor. Some have been subjected to political persecution. They’re yearning for brighter futures in the United States, Mexico or Canada. Walking north offers the best chance of crossing borders either undetected or with permission, as opposed to landing in a plane or docking in a boat.
 
This article explores what makes the Darién Gap so dangerous. We’ll look at who crosses it and why. We’ll explain why the number of travellers increased in late 2021. And we’ll explore what happens when people reach the other side.

A map shows the Darién Gap as the isthmus connecting Colombia and Panama.
Map: Voice of America News

A lush, green, hell
 
The trek across the Darién Gap is 97 kilometers long and can take more than a week to complete. Migrants have no choice but to travel on foot. This is the only break in the Pan-American highway which stretches for some 30,000 kilometres, from Argentina to Alaska.
 
There are no plans to build a road here. Mountains, swamps and dense jungle make the landscape too hostile for infrastructure. Instead, the area hides paramilitary forces, gangs and drug traffickers. The Darién Gap also hosts some 575,000 hectares of UNESCO-protected national park.
 
Most migrants enter the gap with no instructions, no map. To cross, they must ford powerful rivers and pull themselves – and often their children – up steep, mountainous terrain.
 
This is one of the wettest regions of the world and deep mud is everywhere. Plus, the jungle is disorienting; it’s easy to walk in circles. Some people can afford to pay guides or ‘coyotes’ to lead them. But these guides can be human traffickers posing as sympathetic protectors.
 
Death in the Darién Gap
 
Without a road, policing the deepest regions of the Darién Gap is nearly impossible. The region is crawling with paramilitary groups and criminal gangs. They are ready to pick off migrants along the way. Violence, extortion and rape are common threats for the migrants. So is death from snake bites, exposure and drowning.

A man carries a preschool-aged girl with one arm, water in the other, and supplies on his back. He is walking through a deep, muddy trench in the jungle.
Darién Gap travelers face unthinkable decisions as people battle just to finish. A few days in, exhausted trekkers might unload essentials like food, water and tents, so they can carry their children. Photo: John Moore, Getty Images
 
The injured or elderly are among those at greatest risk. Something as simple as a twisted ankle can mean the end. Even able-bodied adults struggle to finish this journey, battling dehydration, hunger and injuries of their own.
 
Heartbreak is rife in the Darién Gap. Helping carry another adult – even as a group – is unthinkable, given the terrain people negotiate and the hunger and dehydration they experience. Even if that person is someone’s wife, sister or father.

One step in an odyssey
 
For many migrants, the Darién Gap is the latest challenge in a years-long quest for safety and opportunity. Some even fly across the Atlantic, to enter Central America via the gap on foot.

Haitian migrants and the Darién Gap

But most migrants negotiating the Darién Gap hail from Haiti. Many have been living in South American countries for years.

Following the 2010 earthquake which devastated their homeland, tens of thousands of Haitians tried to build new lives in Chile and Brazil. Hurricane Matthew in 2016, combined with rampant gang activity and state-sanctioned violence, sent many thousands more fleeing Haiti.

A family in Haiti stands in the rubble of their devastated home on a hillside.
In 2016, Hurricane Matthew pummeled regions of Haiti, destroying tens of thousands of houses. Many of the Haitian families who fled to Brazil and Chile at that time are now crossing the Darién Gap. Photo: Santiago Mosquera

Between 2010 and 2017, an estimated 85,000 Haitians arrived in Brazil. The country welcomed them, promising construction jobs in advance of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.

In the past few years, however, Haitian migrants in both Chile and Brazil have faced tightening restrictions, increased discrimination and economic desperation. The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded every aspect of life, leaving countries everywhere reluctant to welcome newcomers.

These circumstances have left many thousands of Haitian families ready to risk everything for a chance at life in the United States – even the gap.

“Sometimes I think that, if I were not this poor, I wouldn’t have got into this situation,” said Rosi Bantour, a Haitian migrant. She was speaking in an award-winning documentary for PBS, about the gap.

Rosi had been walking for eight days and still wasn’t safely through.

Overseas migrants and the Darién Gap

Globally, the word is out about the Darién Gap. In 2019 alone, Panamanian authorities counted nearly 24,000 migrants from outside South America entering their country via the gap.

The number of overseas migrants slowed in 2020 and 2021, due to worldwide travel bans linked to the global coronavirus pandemic.

A father and his four children, displaced from their community in the Central African Republic, sit outside a mud hut.
Families in dangerous, desperate regions of countries like the Central African Republic can run out of options. Even the Darién Gap can seem hopeful by comparison. Photo: François Tchaya
 
But before then, people from countries like Angola, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan and Yemen risked their lives in the Darién Gap. Why? Because, many of these people were on the list of countries banned by the Trump administration from entering the United States.
 
“The Taliban targeted our family … that is why I had to leave my country,” Nihal Ahmad, a migrant from Pakistan, told freelance journalist Nadja Drost in her documentary for PBS.

For many overseas migrants, entering the United States covertly was their best chance. They flew to Colombia, or another South American country with relaxed entry requirements. And made their way to the Darién Gap.
 
At the trailhead of the Darién Gap 
 
Necoclí, Colombia is a seaside town with a population of just 20,000. But in August of 2021, some 10,000 migrants were crowded into Necoclí– a dramatic increase from previous years. They were awaiting boat passage to the trailhead of the Darién Gap.

A crowd of people gather, all facing the same direction. One man is lifting police tape while another steps underneath.
In July 2021, Necoclí’s outdated public services collapsed due to the influx of migrants, leaving thousands stranded there. Many families were forced to use their life savings to survive for weeks, before gaining passage to the Darién Gap. Photo: Joaquin Sarmiento, Getty Images
 
The bottleneck of migrants made headline news around the world. Lifting of COVID-19 travel restrictions in the region – combined with growing unrest, violence and poverty – had sent thousands north. They had to wait in Necoclí until Panama opened its borders, allowing passage into the gap.
 
Commercial boats from Necoclí across the Gulf of Urabá can typically accommodate just 500 migrants per day in total. This leaves migrants waiting for days, even weeks, for their chance to board a boat, cross the gulf and reach the Darién Gap.

A group of selected migrants wearing life jackets walk to the dock to board a boat. Most are mothers carrying young children.
Their turn at last: migrants head for the boat that will transport them across the gulf to the Darién Gap. World Vision has helped fortify families during their time in Necoclí, through food and supply vouchers for local businesses. Photo: Sebastian Avellaneda
 
Migrants camping on Necoclí’s beach create shelters out of sticks and pieces of plastic. Many have arrived here desperately poor, after months on the road. They come hungry, exhausted and in need of provisions for the Darién Gap.
 
World Vision is there to meet them, providing hygiene kits, shelter and multi-purpose cash vouchers to cover basic needs, says World Vision Colombia’s Peter Gape. “We’ve also established child-friendly spaces to ensure psycho-social attention to children.”

A woman in a World Vision vest kneels to build Lego with children.
Children get the chance to play and relax at a child-friendly space in Necoclí, Colombia. World Vision provides counselling and other support to children who may have lived their whole lives as migrants. Photo: Sebastian Avelleneda
 
It may appear as though World Vision is encouraging migrants to enter the gap. But our teams know that families coming this far have already faced the unthinkable – both in their home countries and as migrants. They are determined to make this crossing.
 
Fortifying migrants for the Darién Gap
 
Necoclí is just one stop on a journey to the United States that can take months, even years. But it’s a critical one. This is the migrants’ last chance to hydrate, fortify and prepare themselves for the Darién Gap.
 
Without the support of World Vision, many migrants would be in danger of depleting what little life savings they have left. They can’t afford the exorbitant prices of supplies driven up in cost by local shortages.
 
What children face in the Darién Gap
 
World Vision provides child carriers for parents to wear in the Darién Gap – and for good reason. A simple cloth carrier can save a child’s life.
 
Not only do carriers keep adults’ hands free to claw their way up steep hills and carry life-saving provisions like safe drinking water. They also help prevent children from being swept from parents’ hands, as they cross rivers on foot.

A man gasps for breath while trudging up a deep, muddy trench. He is carrying a little girl in a sling, as well as a machete and a water bottle.
Photo: Getty Images

The number of Haitian children crossing the Darién Gap has tripled over the past five years. In 2021, more than 19,000 children made the perilous journey, according to UNICEF. Some were in their parents’ arms or carriers. Others were on foot.
 
What some children experience inside the gap is the stuff of nightmares. Some see bodies decomposing along the side of the trail. Some watch as women and girls are dragged away, screaming, to be assaulted by gang members.
 
There are even accounts of children emerging from the gap unaccompanied. The reasons can be harrowing. In some cases, an injured parent or guardian was unable to continue with their children – and left by the path to die.
 
"We see a lot of children being separated from their parents during this horrendous trip,” Sandie Blanchett, UNICEF’s representative in Panama told CNN. “Sometimes babies or very young children are picked up by strangers [walking by on the trail] and brought to our reception centres.”
 
Emerging from the Darién Gap

The invisible border between Colombia and Panama lies deep in the jungle. No officials stand by to check papers. No aid groups wait to provide shelter, protection and rest.

However, once survivors emerge from the jungle, they arrive at the migrant reception centre in Panama, where every person is officially registered. Doctors Without Borders provides medical consultations – including care for the women and girls sexually assaulted or raped in the Darién Gap. UNICEF is also present to provide care and support. 

Darién Gap survivors remain in shelters in Panama, for weeks, or even months, awaiting clearance to continue north to Costa Rica. Colombia and Panama have an agreement allowing for a controlled, co-ordinated flow of migrants through their two countries.

Migrants names and details enter United States’ databases at this time. The ‘controlled flow’ system was set up with the help of U.S. authorities. It acts as a type of ‘early warning’ system for the U.S. about migrants heading for its borders.

Boys play with a tricycle in front of rows of makeshift tents.
On their way north, survivors of the Darién Gap meet migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, fleeing threats in their own countries. At camps in northern Mexico, thousands of migrants wait to seek asylum in the U.S. Photo: Andrea Peer

What’s next for migrants, as they persevere toward the Mexico-U.S. border? Darién Gap survivors must move through at least five more countries before attempting entry to the United States. On the way, they join thousands from countries in Central America, also heading north.

Migrant families understand they may be deported as soon as they arrive in the U.S. But they carry with them the stories of friends and relatives who have, somehow, managed to stay. They pick up their belongings and continue onward.

Solutions to the Darién Gap crisis

Experts, governments, humanitarian groups and journalists have shared ideas about improving the lot of migrants heading north. These have included: Addressing the root causes and drivers of migration in countries where families originate e.g., creating employment opportunities in Haiti.

In Haiti, a small child smiles while standing beside some plants in her family’s garden.
In Haiti, three-year-old Schamaelle is growing up with opportunities, with World Vision’s support. Through child sponsorship, children in Haiti benefit from nutrition and education, and livelihood support for their parents. Photo: Guy Faubert Vital-Herne  

How you can help

The force that drives families toward the Darién Gap is not something many Canadians can easily understand. Still, many of us feel called to help. You can do that, through World Vision Canada. Here are two ways you can get involved:
  1. Support a child, family and community in Haiti through our child sponsorship program. When we increase opportunity through education, livelihood help and other life-saving essentials, families have less need to risk the dangers of migration.
  2. Help protect and care for children in some of the world’s most dangerous regions, through our Raw Hope initiative. Remember, many thousands of people crossing the Darién Gap each year hail from countries overseas.
If families’ dreams have the power to take them through hell in the Darién Gap, just imagine what they can accomplish in partnership with World Vision and you. Reach out today.

Hero image photo credit: Raul Arboleda, Getty Images