Mind the Darién Gap, braving the treacherous pathway to a better life |

Packed with hopes and dreams, Iriana Ureña, a 32-year-old Venezuelan mother of two, arrives at the Migrant Receiving Station (ERM) in San Vicente, El Salvador, on the edge of the Darién Gap. Her eyes showed the pain of a mother who would do anything to protect her child.

Ureña and her husband Eduardo decided with their two children to journey north from Venezuela through the rainforest in search of a better life.

The decision to leave the country, homeland, family and friends to start over is a difficult but necessary decision for them and many other migrants. They were hungry, dehydrated and exhausted when they reached the station.

Migrants arrive at the San Vicente Reception Center after crossing the dangerous void in Darien, Panama.

© IOM / Gema Cortes

Migrants arrive at the San Vicente Reception Center after crossing the dangerous void in Darien, Panama.

‘We saw ugly things along the way’

“The road is not easy, I feel that our lives are in danger. It was a challenge because we saw very ugly things along the way, things that I would never have thought I would see in my life,” said Ureña.

According to the Panamanian Migration Service, nearly 134,000 people, 80% of whom are Haitian, risked their lives traveling through the jungle in 2021.

This is a record number of people crossing the 10,000 square mile rectangle of deserted jungle, treacherous mountains, stormy rivers, swamps and deadly snakes, spanning both on the border between Colombia and Panama.

Today, the journey through the gap is made more dangerous by the criminal and smuggling groups that control the area, often extorting and sometimes sexually assaulting migrants.

The dynamics are changing, however, and Creoles are less commonly heard in the woods. Haitians are still trying to get from Colombia to the US, but they no longer make up the majority, and Spaniards of the Venezuelan emigrants, now dominate the trail.

The number of Venezuelans crossing the Darién Gap in the first two months of 2022 (approximately 2,497), almost reaches the overall total for 2021 (2,819). Venezuelans became the main group to cross the heart of the rainforest, but the data also shows Cubans, Haitians, Senegalese and Uzbeks are making the trip, among others.

A migrant arrives in Lajas Blancas, Panama, with blood blistered feet.

© IOM / Gema Cortés

A migrant arrives in Lajas Blancas, Panama, with blood blistered feet.

High risk of violence

Emerging from the void, most migrants pass through the communities of Bajo Chiquito or Canaan Membrillo, before walking or by community boat, along the muddy waters of the Chucunaque River. The possibility of physical and psychological abuse is very high during the journey.

For the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is providing assistance to transiters and the host community, in collaboration with other agencies and the Government of Panama, whose perennial concern is to secure sufficient funding for their rescue work.

“It takes double the coordination between governments and international cooperation to meet the humanitarian needs of people too,” said Santiago Paz, IOM Panama Director and Director of the Center for Global Administration of Panama (PAC). scene.

Among the newly arrived migrants are Johainy, a Venezuelan mother, and her one-year-old child. “We faced a lot of hardships, we were robbed and saw people die on the way,” she said. “Although we prepared ourselves as best we could by watching many videos of the route, nothing could help us fully prepare for what we were going through in the jungle.”

Mariel Rodriguez, IOM Panama, said: “The migrants we assist in ERM, are in an extremely vulnerable situation and have very diverse needs, from knowing they will arrive in the country. get medical help, clothing or basic hygiene products,” said Mariel Rodriguez, IOM Panama. “The IOM team responds to these needs and works with other Government agencies and organizations to ensure access to available services.”

A Senegalese emigrate after crossing the Darien cleft, Panama.

© IOM / Gema Cortes

A Senegalese emigrate after crossing the Darien cleft, Panama.

Babel in the forest

With a population of around 7,000, the town of Meteti has grown in recent years with migrants – mainly Venezuelans, like Ms Ureña, as well as Cubans, South Americans, Africans, South Asians and others. others, all of which are aimed at the United States or Canada. .

For thousands of migrants around the world, the roadless jungle has become a desperate route north, in search of a better life. A tangle of languages ​​mingled in the vast jungle, from which some never-survived emerged, though the actual death toll is unclear.

Migrants continue to move through the Darién Gap, many with stories or signs of trauma, like Shahzad from Pakistan (“We found corpses and skulls while walking,” he said). or Esther, who was exhausted, with bloody feet, carried by someone else.

Others come with stories of hope. “The climb is extremely difficult. I went into labor and gave birth in the middle of the forest, with only my husband’s help. I had to drink river water for many days. However, the new arrival gave all the family a new sign of hope that I did not expect,” said Bijou Ziena Kalunga, 33, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Or tears of joy, when families are reunited after days apart in the jungle, like William, Jorgeis, Venezuelan and their six-month-old baby. “I’m really sad, and I can’t stop praying for my husband’s arrival. I can’t say how happy I am to have him back,” said Jorgeis.

Tears of joy when the family is reunited after many days apart in the jungle.

© IOM / Gema Cortes

Tears of joy when the family is reunited after many days apart in the jungle.

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