In 2022, most migrants crossing the Darien Gap are Venezuelans – a change from 2021, which saw a majority of Haitians risk the dangerous journey from Colombia to Panama.
Three families sit on the grass at the San Vicente migrant reception center in Panama’s Darién province, waiting for a tent to become available so they have a place to sleep that night. They are more than 1,000 kilometers from home and have come here by bus and on foot. They told Médecins Sans Frontières/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) staff that they had left their country to survive.
The Visitor Center typically accommodates between 300 and 900 people who all plan to travel to the northern United States. Costa Rica is their next stop. More people are arriving every day after crossing the Darien Gap, a treacherous stretch of jungle that separates Panama and Colombia. In 2021, 134,000 migrants crossed this dangerous border region, including 62% from Haiti, 14% from Cuba, 2% from Venezuela and around 3% from various countries in Africa, including Senegal, Ghana and Cameroon. This year has seen a change in the nationality of migrants making the crossing: of the 19,000 people who crossed between January and April, 6,951 were from Venezuela, 2,195 from Haiti, 1,579 from Cuba and 1,355 from Senegal. Many migrants cite the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for their departure, as well as the discrimination that has prevented them from earning enough money to survive or finding suitable accommodation.
To reach Panama from Colombia, migrants have two options. The first option is to pay US$400 to take a boat from Capurganá, Colombia to Carreto, Panama, and then trek through the jungle for two or three days. Alternatively, if they cannot afford the cost, they can take the cheapest but most dangerous route, walking from Capurganá to the Panamanian indigenous community of Canáan Membrillo – a journey that can take between seven and 10 days. and where hundreds of people have reported thefts. , assault and sexual violence. MSF treated 100 cases of sexual violence at the San Vicente center from January to May 2022. In 2021, our teams carried out 328 consultations for sexual violence.
“This jungle is hell”
Yuleidy Pena is 20 years old. On April 19, 2019, she remembers vividly, she left her home in Venezuela and traveled to Ipiales, Colombia, looking for a job to survive.
“I spent two years working in a restaurant with my husband and sending money to Venezuela,” she said. “In Ipiales I had a baby who is now one year old. Unfortunately, the situation got complicated because they didn’t want Venezuelans anymore – they wouldn’t hire us, they wouldn’t let us work – so we decided to cross into Panama and try to get to the United States. .
With her baby strapped to her chest, Peña and her husband crossed the Darién Gap. It took them seven days. Going by boat to Carreto was not an option as they didn’t have US$800 to pay for the tickets. So they had to walk.
“I didn’t think it would be so difficult,” Peña said. “In the jungle, we lacked food and at night we slept in fear by the river because there were so many animals. During the day, the fear was about other things: a woman in the group was about to be raped by men, but luckily the group fought back and didn’t allow it. The hardest thing for me was when my husband fell with our baby while trying to walk on some really big rocks. The baby was crying a lot. We decided to walk non-stop to see if we could find someone to take care of him as we thought he had broken ribs.
When they arrived in the Panamanian community of Canaán Mebrillo, Peña had a fever and her son couldn’t stop crying. There was no medical post nearby, so they were taken by Senafront – Panama’s national border police – on the first boat to the San Vicente reception center.
“We were then transferred to the hospital in Metetí where they carried out tests. It seems my hemoglobin was low from the many beatings I took in the jungle and not eating for four days. Along the way, after running out of food, we only drank water from the river. To eat coconut in a village, for example, you had to clean or pay 5 US$. Now, to go to Costa Rica, we need US$40 per person, which we don’t have. In the meantime, we live here with my sick baby.
Sleeping in the tent next to Peña’s is José Méndez, a 25-year-old Venezuelan, who is traveling with his wife and one-year-old son. The three have been in the center of San Vicente for 19 days. They couldn’t leave because the baby wasn’t registered.
“In Ecuador, they denied us citizenship because we had no papers, so they only gave us a live birth certificate. So they won’t let us continue to Costa Rica. We have to do a DNA test and then [try and] save it.
Méndez left with his wife, Yanleidis, from Maracay, Venezuela, to look for work in another country. Now, they say, they feel “trapped” because they cannot leave the reception center until the DNA test has been done and approved by a judge.
“Not being able to work, not being able to have a place to sleep and a bit of privacy is really infuriating,” Méndez said. “We are doing what we can, but we are tired and desperate.”
“They took everything from us”
At the end of April 2022, Hernán Betancourt, 27, and Mariana Tablante, 21, left Miranda, Venezuela, for the United States. It took the couple a year to save US$87 to make the trip. They knew the money wasn’t enough, “but I couldn’t continue to live there,” Betancourt said. “My mother needed insulin, and she didn’t have any. We were going to bed hungry and we have a one year old baby, we couldn’t go on like this. We felt suffocated, really suffocated.
The family traveled on pack mules and on foot. Arrived at the port of Necoclí in Colombia, they discover that to take the safest route by boat, they have to pay 800 US$, which they don’t have. They paid a guide most of the money they had saved, bought some food, milk and diapers, and set off through the jungle.
“The jungle is not easy,” Tablante said. “On the first day we saw a dead woman, and they told us she apparently died of a snakebite. That same day, after four hours of walking, the guides left the group, and armed and hooded men arrived and took us to a cave. There they made us take off all our clothes, touched our bodies and robbed us. They wanted to take a young girl to rape her, but she cried so much and screamed so loudly that in the end, they didn’t. Thank God.”
After this theft, the family only had diapers, a box of powdered milk and a bottle. “We found a piece of chocolate in the bag and gave it to our little girl,” Betancourt said. “We drank a lot of river water and fell often because the ground was very wet and muddy. My wife and daughter slept on the bank while I stood watch to protect myself from someone stealing from us or stealing animals.
When they reached the top of a mountain known as “Banderas” (flags in Spanish), a group of four hooded people intercepted them. “We were already in the home stretch,” Betancourt said. “They saw that my wife was breastfeeding the baby, they pulled out a shotgun and a machete and took everything from us: the baby’s milk, the bottle and the diapers. We had to walk for two days without stopping, with the baby crying for food, tired, with a headache. Going up and down those mountains with the baby in pain were the hardest days of all.
At the reception center in San Vicente, the family does chores, such as cleaning, so they can leave by bus, since they don’t have the US$80 needed to reach Costa Rica.
MSF has been working in several locations in Panama since April 2021, providing medical and mental health care to migrants. In San Vicente, MSF teams treat an average of 150 patients each day for conditions such as skin problems, diarrhoea, body aches and respiratory infections. In 2022, MSF treated 100 patients for sexual violence and treats an average of seven patients a day for issues related to anxiety, depression, acute stress and other mental health issues caused by the dangerous journey across the country. Darien Gap.