60 percent of this year’s migrants through the Darién Gap have been citizens of Venezuela: 201,288 people. In August, the migrant population was 77 percent Venezuelan: 62,700 people.
Jaw-dropping numbers from a region that was viewed as all but impenetrable until perhaps 2021. And there’s little reason why they won’t continue to increase. Any plan to “block” migrants on this route would require a staggeringly large and complex operation that would create additional challenges, like what to do with tens of thousands of stranded migrants.
One of many reasons—but a big one—why U.S.-bound migration has hit record levels, and may break records again this fall, is that the Darién Gap jungle region straddling Colombia and Panama is no longer an impenetrable barrier.
In fact, the Darién Gap has been crossed over 330,000 times so far this year, including 82,000 crossings in August, according to the latest in a very good series of reports from New York Times correspondent Julie Turkewitz and photographer Federico Ríos.
It’s not really clear what Colombia and Panama can do about it. The options are really lousy:
Try to block migrants? Good luck with that. The Darién Gap is dense, roadless jungle (at least for now). If security forces focus on one pathway, another will open up. And what if Colombia and Panama somehow succeed in blocking migrants? What do they then do with hundreds of thousands of stranded people from all over the world? Fly them back to China, India, Afghanistan, Cameroon, and dozens of other destinations, at huge expense and at huge risk to the returnees? Bus them back to threats and penury in Venezuela and Ecuador?
Create a safe movement corridor? Channeling migrants through a route that is government-controlled territory—or, better yet, avoids the environmentally fragile forest entirely—would cut organized crime out of the picture. It would reduce many of the alarming security risks that migrants now face. Governments would have biometric records and other data about everyone attempting to pass through. By registering most migrants and permitting them to transit their territory on buses, Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras are already doing this. But the political obstacles to “safe passage” approaches are beyond daunting: the U.S. government (or at least, key officials and members of Congress) would condemn and seek to punish Colombia and Panama for waving everyone northward. U.S. officials would fear that the promise of safe passage would attract still more migrants.
”Soft blocking” of migrants? That more or less describes the situation today in the Darién region (and Mexico, Guatemala, and some South American countries). The official position is that migration is an administrative offense, and migrant smuggling is illegal. A handful get detained or deported, and some (usually very low-level) smugglers get arrested. But either security forces view their checkpoints and patrols as opportunities to shake migrants down for bribes, or organized crime takes over routes. Usually both. Migrants get assaulted, robbed, or worse. Some may spend time in state detention. But if they can run that gauntlet and remain alive—and most do, obviously—very few end up discouraged from proceeding northward.
None of these options is promising: some violate the most basic human rights, some assist organized crime, some are simply impossible, and the least-bad choice would hit a political brick wall.
Faced with these very poor choices, it’s not surprising that leaders like Colombia’s Gustavo Petro are reluctant to make in-transit migration a priority. According to the Times:
Colombia’s president, Gustavo Petro, acknowledged in an interview that the national government had little control over the region, but added that it was not his goal to stop migration through the Darién anyway — despite the agreement his government signed with the United States.
After all, he argued, the roots of this migration were “the product of poorly taken measures against Latin American peoples,” particularly by the United States, pointing to Washington’s sanctions against Venezuela.
He said he had no intention of sending “horses and whips” to the border to solve a problem that wasn’t of his country’s making.
That last bit is a veiled reference to a September 2021 incident in Del Rio, Texas, where Border Patrol agents on horseback were caught on camera charging at Haitian migrants on the bank of the Rio Grande. The Times continues:
just like the people running the migration business, he [President Petro] presented his hands-off approach to migration as a humanitarian one.
The answer to this crisis, he said, was not to go “chasing migrants” at the border or to force them into “concentration camps” that blocked them from trying to reach the United States.
“I would say yes, I’ll help, but not like you think,” Mr. Petro said of the agreement with the Biden administration, which was big on ambition but thin on details. He said any solution to the issue had to focus on “solving migrants’ social problems, which do not come from Colombia.”
He expects half a million people to cross the Darién this year, he said, and then a million next year.
The Venezuelan publication Tal Cual, citing unreleased data from Panama’s government, states that 196,370 people migrated through eastern Panama’s once-impenetrable Darién Gap jungles during the first 6 months of 2023.
Fifty-one percent, or 100,514 of the travelers who transited through the Darien jungle between January and June 2023, were Venezuelans.
Venezuelans were followed by Haitians (33,074), Ecuadorians (25,105), citizens of 23 African countries (6,420), Chileans (4,964) and Colombians (3,579).
(The Chileans were almost entirely the children of Haitian migrants who were born in Chile.)
If the 196,370 figure is near final, it is almost exactly 30,000 more than the 166,649 people whom Panamanian authorities had measured through May.
As this screenshot of Panama’s data shows, 30,000 migrants in a month—while still an unimaginably large number for such a remote and dangerous region—is about one-quarter fewer people than Panama measured in March (38,099), April (40,297), and May (38,962).
The decline is less steep than the 70 percent drop in daily migrant apprehensions that the U.S. Border Patrol chief’s regular tweets have been recording. That probably means that the population of migrants bottled up between Panama and the U.S. border—mostly in Mexico—is increasing.
The decline at the Darién is a result of uncertainty about how the Biden administration will apply its restrictive new post-Title 42 asylum access rule to migrants who turn themselves in to U.S. authorities.
It is also a result of the end (with the end of Title 42, on May 11) of a two-month period in which Mexico’s government, in the aftermath of a tragic March 27 migrant detention center fire that killed 40 people, was refusing U.S. Title 42 expulsions of Venezuelan citizens from at least a few border sectors. That eased Venezuelan asylum seekers’ releases into the U.S. interior, and word got out about that possibility in April and the first part of May, as U.S. authorities’ encounters with Venezuelan migrants increased sharply.
As noted above, Tal Cual reports that 100,514 Venezuelan migrants crossed the Darién Gap so far this year. That would mean about 18,500 Venezuelans crossed in June (there were 82,054 through May). That is a 30 percent drop in Venezuelan migration from May—8,000 fewer migrants, accounting for nearly all of the May-June worldwide reduction in migration through the Darién.
Since May 12, protection-seeking Venezuelan migrants must either:
apply for a two-year humanitarian parole status (which requires them both to hold a passport and to have a willing sponsor in the United States), or
make their way to northern Mexico and seek an appointment at a U.S. border port of entry using the CBP One smartphone app. CBP just increased the number of daily appointments to 1,450, about double what it was during Title 42.
While those pathways are important, they accommodate only a fraction of those seeking to migrate from Venezuela. Those reduced possibilities probably explain much of the June drop in migration through the Darién Gap, where more than half of this year’s migrants have been Venezuelan.
This talking point about a “95% drop in border migrant encounters from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela” is problematic.
Why? Let’s examine encounters along the migration route, from north to south.
Here’s where the 95% comes from.
US Border Patrol’s apprehensions of these 4 countries’ migrants really did drop steeply from December—after Mexico agreed to accept Title 42 expulsions of these nationalities, and once a “humanitarian parole” option opened up for some of them.
But there’s no 95% drop anywhere else along the migration route, where people fleeing those countries have become stranded.
Since December, Mexico’s encounters with these 4 countries’ migrants are only down 42%.
Since December, Honduras’s encounters with Cuban, Haitian, and Venezuelan migrants are up 10%.
(Nicaraguan citizens don’t need passports to be in Honduras, and thus don’t end up in Honduras’s count of “irregular” or “undocumented” migrants.)
Since December, in Panama’s Darién Gap, migration from Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela is up 250% (though down 57% from a high in October, before Mexico started accepting expulsions of Venezuelan migrants).
The upshot: migration from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela may be down sharply at the US-Mexico border, due to aggressive Title 42 expulsions.
But the expulsions have absolutely not deterred these nations’ citizens from migrating. They’re still fleeing—but they’re stranded.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.