World, Back Page

Record 500,000+ migrants crossed into Panama this year

Published : 07 Dec 2023 10:46 PM

A record of over half a million US-bound migrants have crossed the dangerous Darien jungle from Colombia to Panama so far this year, the government in Panama said Wednesday.

The number was double that of 2022, when some 248,000 people made the arduous journey, Security Minister Juan Manuel Pino told AFP.

Along the journey, migrants driven by a chance at a better life encounter wild animals, thick jungle, rivers and criminal gangs who rob or demand money to guide them through the jungle.

Despite its dangers, the 165-mile (265-kilometer) Darien Gap has become a key corridor for migrants heading from South America through Central America and Mexico in hopes of reaching the United States.

Most are Venezuelans, but there are also Ecuadorans, Haitians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Afghans and people from African countries.

The flow is so great that Panama, with the aid of international organization, has set up aid centers for migrants in different parts of the country.

"The thousands of people who risk their lives, often along with their families, need an immediate and ongoing protection response and humanitarian assistance," said Olivier Dubois of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Many fall victim to sexual violence, extortion, kidnapping or other crimes, he said at a press conference in Panama City.

In an bid to curb the procession, the government announced a series of measures in September that included increase in the number of deportations of people who enter the country illegally.

"The number of migrants who have crossed the jungle is equivalent to more than 11 percent of the population of Panama. This is an unprecedented crisis that has not received enough global or regional attention," Luis Eguiluz of Doctors Without Borders said in a statement.

The migrants "are exposed to a situation of extreme vulnerability: hunger, lack of shelter and water sources, excessive charges, disinformation and scams, xenophobia and physical, psychological and sexual violence," he added.

In 2008, the first year with records, 28 people entered Panama through the Darien.