With a bag full of hopes and dreams, Iriana Ureña, a 32-year-old Venezuelan mother of two, arrives at a Migrant Reception Station (ERM) in San Vicente, El Salvador, on the edge of the Darién Gap. The look in her eyes shows the pain of a mother who would do anything to protect her children from her.
Mrs. Ureña and her husband Eduardo decided to travel to northern Venezuela through the jungle with their two children in search of a better life.
The decision to leave their country, home, family and friends, to start anew, was difficult but necessary for them and many other migrants. They were hungry, dehydrated and exhausted upon arrival at the station.
‘We saw ugly things along the way’
“The road was not easy, I felt that our lives were in danger. It was a challenge because we saw some very ugly things along the way, things that I never thought I would see in my life,” said Ms. Ureña.
According to the Panama Migration Service, nearly 134,000 people, 80 percent of whom were Haitians, risked their lives traveling through the dense jungle in 2021.
This is a record number of people crossing the 10,000-square-mile rectangle of trackless jungle, rugged mountains, turbulent rivers, swamps and deadly snakes, which straddles the Colombia-Panama border.
Today, the journey across the gap is made more dangerous by criminal and smuggling groups that control the region, often extorting and sometimes sexually assaulting migrants.
However, the dynamic is changing and Creole is heard less and less in the jungle. Haitians continue to try to get from Colombia to the United States, but they are no longer the majority, and the Spanish of Venezuelan migrants now prevails along the way.
The number of Venezuelans who crossed the Darién Gap in the first two months of 2022 (some 2,497), nearly reached 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 making the journey, among others.
High risk of violence
Exiting the gap, most migrants pass through the communities of Bajo Chiquito or Canaan Membrillo, before making their way on foot or in community boats, along the murky waters of the Chucunaque River. The probability of suffering physical and psychological violence is very high throughout the journey.
For the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is providing assistance to people in transit and host communities, in coordination with other agencies and the Government of Panama, a perennial concern is ensuring sufficient funding for its life-saving work.
“There is an urgent need to redouble coordination between governments and international cooperation to respond to the humanitarian needs of the population in transit,” says Santiago Paz, Head of IOM Panama and Head of the Global Administrative Center (PAC) of Panama.
Among the newly arrived migrants is Johainy, a Venezuelan mother, and her one-year-old baby. “We had a lot of difficulties, we were robbed and we saw dead people on the way,” she says. “Although we prepared ourselves as much as we could by watching many videos on the route, nothing could fully prepare us for what we experienced in the forest.”
“The migrants we serve at the ERM are in a situation of extreme vulnerability and have very varied needs, from knowing which country they are arriving to, to medical assistance, clothing or basic hygiene products,” says Mariel Rodríguez, from IOM Panama. . “The IOM team responds to these needs and coordinates with other government agencies and institutions to ensure access to available services.”
babel in the jungle
With a population of around 7,000 people, the city of Meteti has been inundated in recent years with immigrants, mostly Venezuelans like Ms. Ureña, as well as Cubans, South Americans, Africans, South Asians and others, all bound for the United States or Canada. .
For thousands of migrants from all over the world, the dangerous and pathless jungle becomes a path of desperate hope heading north, in search of a better life. A babel of languages mingle in the vast jungle, from which some never emerge alive, though the true number of dead is unclear.
Migrants continue to flow across the Darien Gap, many with histories or signs of trauma, like Shahzad from Pakistan (“We found dead bodies and skulls during the trek,” he said) or Esther, who arrived exhausted, her feet covered in blood, carried by other people.
Others came with stories of hope. “The hike was extremely tough. I went into labor and had my baby in the middle of the forest, only with the help of my husband. I had to drink river water for days. However, the newcomer gave the whole family a new sign of hope that he did not expect,” said Bijou Ziena Kalunga, 33, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Or tears of joy, when families are reunited after several days apart in the jungle, like Venezuelans William, Jorgeis and their six-month-old baby. “I was very sad and kept praying for my husband to come. I can’t tell you how happy I am to have him back,” says Jorgeis.