Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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Panama

Migration through the Darién Gap: still increasing

Panama’s migration authority released data about migrants passing overland through the Darién Gap, a treacherous jungle region straddling Colombia and Panama, during October. This lawless area has seen a record amount of migration this year: over 211,000 people in 10 months.

On October 12, the U.S. and Mexican governments announced that they would cooperate in using the Title 42 “pandemic authority” to expel Venezuelan citizens across the U.S.-Mexico land border into Mexico. One might have expected this change—the elimination of Venezuelans’ right to ask for asylum in the United States—to result in a decline in northbound migration through the Darién.

It did not:

The number of migrants from Venezuela did begin to level off: Panama registered 40,593 Venezuelans emerging from the Darién jungles in October, just 6 percent more than in September (38,399). The overwhelming majority probably came through before the October 12 Title 42 policy change kicked in.

But the number of migrants from elsewhere in the world virtually doubled from September to October, increasing 96% (9,805 to 19,180). The most rapid growth among countries whose citizens were encountered over 100 times in the Darién in October occurred with citizens of Ecuador (+227% in one month), Afghanistan (+206%), China (+101%), Pakistan (+73%), Brazil (+73%), and India (+72%).

Overall, because of the growth in non-Venezuelan migration, total migration through the Darién Gap increased 24 percent from September to October.

To cross the Darién Gap, migrants walk a dangerous, roughly 70-mile trail through dense jungle, with almost no government presence. They are routinely preyed on by criminals who rob, assault, rape, or even kill them. Many others perish of river drownings, disease, or venomous animals. Two recent photo-filled articles by New York Times correspondent Julie Turkewitz and photojournalist Federico Ríos—one published today—illustrate the misery and danger of a journey taken by an average of 2,000 people per day last month—an until-recently unthinkable total.

Venezuelan migration through Panama’s Darién gap

23,000 Venezuelan migrants arriving in a month at the US-Mexico border would be big news: it only happened once before, last December.

But in August, 23,632 migrants from Venezuela (green on the below chart) walked through Panama’s dangerous, ungoverned Darién Gap jungle.

8 months into 2022, Panama has exceeded 100,000 migrants through the Darién Gap, and seems certain to break its annual record. That number (133,726) seemed unimaginable last year when tens of thousands of Haitian people (blue on the below chart) came up from South America.

737 migrants per day in the Darién Gap last month

Panama’s government published data on the number of people whom its migration authorities registered coming through the dangerous Darién Gap migration route, in the country’s far east along the Colombia border.

The 22,582 migrants who came through the Darién in July (737 per day) were the fourth-largest monthly total that Panama has ever measured. The top three were in August-October 2021, when a large number of Haitian migrants took this very dangerous route.

This year, migration of Haitian citizens is reduced, but a stunning number of Venezuelans are now passing through the Darién. Three-quarters of July’s migrants in this region (16,864, or 544 per day) came from Venezuela.

In January, at strong U.S. suggestion, Mexico established a visa requirement for Venezuelan citizens arriving in the country, which sharply reduced the number of Venezuelans arriving by air, many of whom were traveling to the U.S. border to seek asylum. U.S.-bound migration of Venezuelans fell in February, but is now recovering as migrants take the far more dangerous land route.

In the first 7 months of 2021, Panama registered 45,029 migrants in the Darién. The total for the first 7 months of 2022 is 71,012.

Migration through the Darién Gap increased further in June

Panama’s migration authority has released data through June detailing migration through the Darién Gap, a jungle region along the border with Colombia that is where the Pan-American Highway stops. It’s a barely governed area where violent criminal groups more or less have free rein. Migrants who dare to make the roughly 60-mile journey routinely report being robbed, beaten, or raped, and seeing dead bodies along the trail.

This year, most of the growing number of people taking the Darién route are coming from Venezuela. 11,359 Venezuelan people passed through the Darién in June, more than ever before. That’s nearly 3 out of 4 (73%) of the 15,633 people who took this once-avoided route just last month.

Nearly 50,000 people migrated through the Darién during the first half of 2022. That’s on pace to be second to 2021, when 133,726 took this dangerous route. Last year, three-quarters of migrants were Haitian. This year, nearly 60% are Venezuelan.

Venezuelans seeking to migrate north used to be able to skip Darién’s dangers and fly to Mexico. But in Jan 2022, at strong US suggestion, Mexico started requiring visas of arriving Venezuelans, as Human Rights Watch reported last week. Most now have to take the land route.

Growing numbers of migrants taking the Darién route are coming from Africa: 6,188 so far this year. Many came from Angola and Senegal earlier in the year. In recent months, more migrants are coming from Ghana and Somalia—both east and west Africa.

Big increase in Venezuelans coming through Panama’s Darién Gap

The Panamanian Migration Service’s latest data show a 145 percent increase, from April to May, in migrants coming through the dangerous, ungoverned Darién Gap jungles. 13,894 people took this several-day walk in May, risking drowning, disease, and assault, theft, and rape from criminal groups that operate with total impunity.

That’s not a record—more migrants passed through the Darién in July-October of last year, a period when Haitians who had been living in South America massively migrated toward the United States.

This year, most migrants are Venezuelan: 71 percent in May, and 51 percent in January-May. Venezuelan migration through the Darién was 43 percent greater in May than in the first four months of the year combined. Migration of Colombian and Ecuadorian citizens in May was also nearly double the January-April total.

Until recently, Venezuelans seeking to migrate toward the United States would mostly arrive by air to Mexico, which did not require visas of visiting Venezuelan tourists. That route got shut down on January 21 when Mexico, at very strong U.S. suggestion, began imposing visa requirements for visiting Venezuelans.

Venezuelans are now taking to the treacherous land route. Once they make it through Panama, most are ending up in the Mexican southern-border zone city of Tapachula, where they are stranded. Venezuelans made up most of the attempted migrant “caravan” that left Tapachula a week ago. That caravan made headlines but is now mostly dispersed, as Mexican migration authorities have been providing visas allowing migrants to leave Tapachula.

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