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As Darién migration goes global, language becomes a major challenge

‘Sometimes officials demand things, but we have no idea what they want.’

We see a large grouo of people walking up a path, behind them a jungle. They their migration journey leaving the last camp in Acandi, Colombia. Timothy O’Farrell/TNH
Hundreds of migrants leave a camp in Acandí, Colombia, heading towards the Darién Gap, in April 2024. Last year, migrants from over 100 countries took the dangerous jungle trek into Panama.

Two dozen people with Chinese passports in hand and heavy luggage in tow line up at Necoclí dock ready to depart for the Darién Gap. Boats wait to take them across the bay to the town of Acandí – the gateway to the treacherous 100-kilometre jungle trek from Colombia into Panama that is the only overland route towards the United States.

The Chinese migrants pay street vendors in US dollars to wrap their belongings in plastic and avoid damage during the 40-minute ride. None of them speak Spanish. Instead, they negotiate via hand signals: Vendors charge them three to four times more than the Spanish-speaking migrants paying in Colombian pesos.


The group is managed by a Colombian handler, who bundles their passports and speaks with the workers at the docks, organising passage, sorting their tickets and checking off the names he has on a clipboard.

Until last year, the vast majority of migrants crossing the Darién Gap came from Latin America and the Caribbean, but while Venezuelans and Ecuadorians still make up the two largest groups, the jungle stretch has now turned into a global migration hotspot. 

In 2023, migrants from over 100 countries made the passage, those from China being the fourth biggest group and the largest outside the Americas, according to official Panamanian data. Afghanistan came in at number seven, and India in tenth spot. The list increasingly includes countries from across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

The annual numbers attempting the journey have soared from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands in just a few years: Last year, more than 520,000 people took the path, and more than 110,000 traversed the route in the first three months of 2024.

The internationalisation of the influx through the Darién has been sudden and is putting pressure on aid groups and governments to adapt to the specific needs these new migrants have. Their lack of Spanish language skills and different cultural mindset often put them at even greater risk than Latin American migrants. 

“Numbers in the Darién Gap, in a sense, act as an international barometer, and what it is telling us is clear,” said Bram Ebus, consultant in Colombia for the International Crisis Group (ICG). “This is an international crisis.”

The key drivers

The United States has become an ever more attractive destination. The number of migrants encountered at the Mexico-US border – both those apprehended and those expelled – soared from approximately 1.7 million in 2021 to nearly 2.5 million in 2023. 

A number of factors have been contributing to this trend.

Post-pandemic inflation rises and economic slowdowns have been important push factors in many countries, including China.

Lack of integration, restrictive migration policies, and mounting xenophobia across South America have also been pressuring many of the more than 7.7 million Venezuelans who fled their country’s economic collapse since 2015 to migrate for a second time. Other countries have their own particular circumstances. In Afghanistan, for example, the return of the Taliban and a series of droughts, floods, and earthquakes are adding to an already complex humanitarian crisis, driving many to migrate. 

Conflict is a key factor for many. According to global conflict monitoring group ACLED, 2023 saw 12% more conflicts compared to 2022, and a 40% increase from 2020. This amounts to one in six people living in active conflict zones around the world.

Migrants from Somalia, Haiti, and Syria, all described conflict – or fear of conflict – as one of the main reasons for their decision to apply for asylum in the United States.

Climate change has also become a key driver: extreme weather patterns causing natural disasters and turning more regions into “climate hotspots” where biodiversity is disappearing and agriculture has become almost unviable. Nepal, Bangladesh, and India – high on the list of Darién Gap nationalities – are among the countries more vulnerable to climate risks.

Once in the Americas, the increasing trend to impose visa restrictions and to militarise borders in several Latin American countries makes the Darién Gap the only overland pathway for those wanting to cross into Central America and head northwards. 

For some nationalities, Nicaragua provides one alternative. The government eliminated visa requirements for Cubans in 2021, leading to a significant drop in the numbers of Cubans crossing the Colombia-Panama border. In a move that spurred tensions with the US government, Nicaragua began offering entry to Haitians and an increasing number of African and Asian countries via charter flights. But these flights and visa costs are steep and out of reach for many. 

US visa requirements and domestic migration policies are also making it harder for migrants from outside the continent to enter the United States legally, forcing them to go through Latin America.

This all means that a growing number of people from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are feeling compelled to travel north through the Darién Gap to the US border to ask for asylum, joining hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, Haitians, and Ecuadorians.

The language barrier

Ahmed is one of them. A recent graduate in his mid-twenties, he has travelled from Kismayo, a port in southern Somalia, to Las Tecas – a migrant camp at the entrance of the jungle trek on the Colombian side of the border, about eight kilometres from Acandí.

When The New Humanitarian encountered him in April, he was waiting at a small aid station run by Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World). The woman he was travelling with, also Somali, wanted to take advantage of the health services before they embarked on the gruelling hike into Panama, which takes three to five days. 

Ahmed speaks English, Somali, and a bit of French. He translated for her as she interacted with the doctors, from English to Somali. It was the first opportunity she had had to speak with medical professionals since their trip began. 

Médecins du Monde has workers who speak English and Spanish on site. For other languages, they have access to translators who work by phone, but they are not always available, which sometimes forces them to communicate via Google Translate.

Aid workers told The New Humanitarian that the majority of humanitarian groups operating in the region are yet to adapt to the influx of non-Spanish-speaking migrants.

Médecins du Monde is among those trying. It is in the process of expanding its translation capacities by posting French-speaking staff at its station in Las Tecas and employing more translators in Necoclí, where many aid organisations operate.

A worker from GIFFM – the Colombian organisation that coordinates aid responses between the government, UN agencies, and private efforts – told The New Humanitarian that the language barrier is particularly problematic during medical emergencies, when using a translator over the phone can be far from ideal.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, they described the case of a woman from Kenya who sought treatment for a mental health emergency in Necoclí. Her distress prevented her from communicating clearly what language she spoke, delaying treatment by hours until a translator could arrive in person, which resulted in additional anguish for her and complicated her care.

Compounding the issue is the fact that communicating with those in authority is also difficult. According to Ahmed, migration officials in Necoclí spoke exclusively in Spanish, as did most police during his journey. “Sometimes they demand things, but we have no idea what they want,” he said.

A way around visa requirements

In early 2023, Ahmed had never heard of the Darién Gap, but he was already trying to leave his native country out of fear of being forced to join a gang or extremist group.

“They don’t give you a choice,” he said.

He tried to move to Kenya, but was denied asylum. Then he saw “a TikTok video posted by a Somali friend in America”, recorded in the Darién Gap. After researching online and in migration group chats, he decided to follow his friend’s example.

Ahmed organised the trip himself, but many migrants in the Darién region plan their intercontinental odysseys with “travel agencies” – some of which are run by transnational criminal organisations, according to Ebus.

A Chinese migrant in his early twenties who spoke to The New Humanitarian and plans to go by the name of “Bobby” when he arrives in the United States used one such “agency” to plan his route. 

Bobby, who asked that his real name be withheld, is among a growing number of middle-class Chinese nationals who have chosen to leave their country due to strict lockdowns, dire economic conditions, and restrictions on political freedom. 

Between January and April 2024, more than 24,000 Chinese people were registered at the southern border of the United States – more than during all of 2023, according to the US Department of Homeland Security.

Of the dozens of migrants from outside of Latin America who spoke to The New Humanitarian in the span of three days, most said they began their land journeys in Peru or – more commonly – Ecuador, because it doesn’t require visas for most nationalities, and migrants often only need to provide proof of onward travel before being granted a tourist visa.

Easy targets 

Migrants from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East don’t only face linguistic challenges. They are also more vulnerable to corrupt security forces and criminal groups, especially as the police and the cartels know they tend to travel with more money.

Ahmed’s group was robbed by Peruvian police, who pulled them off a public bus at a security checkpoint and demanded money. They didn’t have enough on them to satisfy the officers, who then took the group to an automatic teller machine under threats to withdraw more. When one of Ahmed’s companions refused, he was beaten and had to go to the emergency room, Ahmed said.

Venezuelans who enter Colombia formally have some limited access to services, but migrants who don’t are generally excluded from healthcare, which operates under a public-private hybrid system that relies on health insurance coverage for payment. The government provides this insurance for free to less wealthy Colombians, and also offers a system of subsidies, but most migrants don't qualify for these.

“If a transient migrant shows up at an emergency room with life-threatening injuries, medical officials are legally bound to provide treatment,” explained Luisa Fernando Gómez, communications director for the health secretary in Apartadó – a city that serves as a regional hub in northern Colombia for migrants travelling on to the Darién. 

“But for other conditions, including pregnancies, or complications from long-term health conditions, they will be denied treatment and referred to private doctors,” she added.

Prenatal care and paediatric services are becoming vital for migrants in the Darién region as families increasingly undertake the journey. More than 30,000 children crossed the Darién Gap in the first four months of 2024, according to a May report from UNICEF – a 40% rise compared to 2023.

Fernando Gómez said the Apartadó mayor’s office – in conjunction with the Colombian Red Cross and UN agencies – is trying to provide basic services via roving “mobile healthcare units”, especially for prenatal care and malnutrition.

“But these are for everyone,” she explained. “While they provide treatment to some migrants, they are not specifically targeted at migrant populations,” she added, urging NGOs to step in more and fill the gap. 

These obstacles, however, are not stopping migrants from persevering. 

At the time of publication, Ahmed was still trapped in Tapachula on the Guatemalan-Mexican border. He had been robbed twice more in his trip – once by Guatemalan police, and again by other migrants when he arrived in Mexico. 

“I am going to have to beg my uncle for money,” he told The New Humanitarian via text messages. “I don’t have the resources to continue north.”

Edited by Daniela Mohor.

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