Last year saw a near-doubling in the number of migrants and asylum seekers crossing the treacherous Darién Gap – a 100-kilometre wide wilderness separating Colombia and Panama. Since the start of 2023, figures have soared again.
Amid expectations that even more crossings will be attempted now that Title 42 has expired, The New Humanitarian spoke to Caitlyn Yates, a PhD candidate of anthropology at the University of British Columbia who recently spent six months living in Darién, to find out more.
Yates believes that neither the end of Title 42 – a pandemic-era policy that prohibited migrants entering the United States irregularly from requesting US asylum, and allowed for their immediate expulsion – nor the United States-Panama-Colombia plan announced in April will protect migrants or stop them from embarking on the dangerous journey.
“The US policy has a role in the decision-making process of migrants, but a lot of questions about what is going to happen remain unanswered, especially for people crossing through Darién,” she said.
While 250,000 people went through the Darién Gap in 2022, during the first four months of 2023 alone, there were 127,000 passages, six times the same period the previous year. As many as 400,000 people are expected to attempt the journey by the end of the year.
This uptick is overwhelming the meagre humanitarian assistance in place.
On the Panamanian side of the border, camps in the towns of San Vicente and Lajas Blancas have the capacity to receive 500 to 1,000 people per day. Already, up to 1,500 migrants and asylum seekers are arriving daily.
The Panamanian government delivers meals, but food quickly runs out. Medical services are also rudimentary. Humanitarian organisations, such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the Red Cross, HIAS, and UNICEF, give emergency assistance in the camps, while other international agencies do periodic monitoring.
In the jungle itself, the situation is even more perilous. At least 36 people died crossing the Darién Gap in 2022, according to data collected by the Missing Migrants Project, run by the UN’s migration agency, IOM. However, the real number of fatalities is believed to be much higher. Once across the border into Panama, migrants trek through two small Indigenous communities, Bajo Chiquito and Canaán Membrillo, where aid groups do not operate.
Read more: ‘The Invisibles’: A Cuban asylum seeker’s dangerous odyssey
In February, 39 people died when a bus transferring migrants to the Los Planes reception centre in the north of the country crashed. A week later, a bus caught fire and Panamanian authorities stopped bus services to Los Planes, where migrants are registered by the national migration agency before continuing on to Costa Rica. Buses have resumed travelling, but tighter safety controls significantly reduced the number of vehicles available, forcing migrants to stay longer in the camps and putting more pressure on humanitarian agencies.
“That causes a dire situation: hygiene concerns, no consistent running water, no places to sleep, more gender-based violence, not enough food, or medical services,” said Yates. “The situation has spiralled into something more critical.”
In conversation with The New Humanitarian, she detailed the urgent humanitarian needs and explained why she doubts the hemisphere´s new migration policies will alleviate the suffering.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The New Humanitarian: You spent six months on the Panamanian side of the Darién Gap. What are the shortcomings in humanitarian assistance?
Caitlyn Yates: There is a lot of misinformation regarding the lack of infrastructure on the Panamanian side. Food and clean water are a consistent need. When people leave Colombia, migrants bring some food or supplies, but that runs out in a couple of days, and they spend 3-10 days crossing the Darién. On their way, they reach the indigenous communities that are very small, far from the road, and have limited access to food. Community members will cook food to sell it, but a meal costs $5-$7, and when they arrive migrants have either run out of money or been robbed. Beyond that, there is a lack of medical care. After crossing the jungle, people are extremely dehydrated; they have contracted bacterial and viral infections, mostly because of drinking dirty water; or are injured. It's a daily issue for people who have broken legs or tested positive for diseases like malaria. The other problem is that unlike other countries in Latin America, there is no presence of local NGOs. That also means that there is a significant lack of information in the local civil society about the needs.
The New Humanitarian: What is the situation in the remote Indigenous communities?
Yates: Bajo Chiquito has about 1,200 residents and Canaán Membrillo about 300. In Bajo Chiquito there is one public doctor paid by the Ministry of Health in Panama, but in the past year more than 1,000 migrants on average arrived per day, often in very poor condition, so decisions must be made about who is going to be treated. This also makes it increasingly difficult for residents to receive medical care. In the other community, a doctor was supposed to be paid by the Ministry of Health, but the funds got cut so there isn't any medical service. If migrants arrive in bad shape, hopefully the day after they can be put on a canoe to head out of the Darién and reach the main reception centres, which is a 4- to 5-hour canoe ride.
The New Humanitarian: Anticipating the end of Title 42 led to rising flows of migrants. What do you think will happen next?
Yates: Back in October, the main nationality crossing were by far Venezuelans. When Venezuela was added to the countries in Title 42, they almost stopped going through the Darién for a couple of months. And at the end of December, those numbers went back up again because of the announcement of the CBP One App (the app allowing people to request an appointment with US Customs and Border Protection). But people will continue to cross, either because they are hoping that they will be the exception to rules of expulsion or repatriation, or simply because they say that they have no other choice. Not just in the Venezuelan case but also in the Haitian, that’s true. People cross the Darién multiple times in hopes that they will eventually be able to reach the United States or elsewhere, including places like Costa Rica and Mexico. So, whatever happens after Title 42 is going to play a role, but I don't think it has any capacity to stop migration of any of these nationalities through the Darién.
The New Humanitarian: The response to growing migration waves has been militarised borders in different countries. What is the impact of such policies?
Yates: That is a trend we're seeing throughout the hemisphere. The announcement of the movement of US military forces to the border is not a coincidence. It [came up] as we [reached] the end of Title 42, and there is a lot unknown in terms of whether we’re going to see an increase in individuals attempting to cross between ports of entry. That's a concern from the US government perspective, but migrants are also waiting, and they have been waiting for a very long time either to get an appointment on the CBP One App or to figure out what is going to happen.
The New Humanitarian: The US, Colombia, and Panama recently announced a tripartite plan to slash illegal migration through the Darién Gap. How effective can it be?
Yates: Panama, Colombia, and the United States said that there are three main priorities they will engage in. One was the end of the movement of people through Darién given the ongoing insecurity and humanitarian crisis; the second was to open more legal pathways for migrants; and the third was to increase services for residents on both sides of the border. It's been almost a month since this plan was announced and nothing has changed in practice. So, I´m very sceptical, not just because nothing has happened so far, but also because of how remote the Darién Gap is. There is no road throughout any of the Darién Gap itself, and on both sides of the border, we have very poor, isolated communities. Another reason I feel sceptical about any attempt to close off the border is the presence of various criminal groups. The Clan del Golfo on the Colombian side controls a lot of that territory and even eliminated Colombian law enforcement presence. The last thing is that while we are definitely paying attention to the numbers of Venezuelans, Ecuadorans, and Haitians, there are more than a dozen other nationalities crossing every single day. Migrants from India, Afghanistan, Cameroon, Somalia – people that Colombia does not want to stay. So, without giving Colombia something to really ramp up their presence, I don't see Colombia really playing ball. That is why we haven't seen much happening since the announcement was made.
The New Humanitarian: What is needed to address these hemispheric migration waves?
Yates: In many ways, the idea of managing the migration trends from a hemispheric approach – having many countries ramp up their asylum processing centres or programmes – makes a lot of sense. If migrants can find a safe place to live and not have to cross the Darién or 10 countries, it’s obviously a win for everybody. But the reality is that you’re seeing across South America and the Caribbean a growing militarised response to migration, increasing xenophobia, few employment or education options, and, for non-Latin Americans, no access to [interpreters] – a basic need for them to be integrated into countries throughout the region. So, if the idea is to bolster asylum processing priorities without addressing these serious issues and challenges that these migrants are facing in South America, Central America, Mexico, it's not going to be successful. First, we need to take a step back to think about what the long-term strategies are that countries will engage in to receive and host migrants from all over the world.
And the last thing is that I will continue to be sceptical that migration through the Darién is ever going to end. No matter what happens going forward, there must be a more serious conversation about how to bolster basic services, food, medical care, housing in the reception centres in Panama, because, if not, the situation will become much more dire and will affect not only the migrants, but also the local communities that live in the Darién province. This must continue being a priority point for Panama, but also for international organisations and the other countries that are working with Panama on these migration dynamics.
Edited by Tom Brady.