Migration in the Darien Gap: a Heartbreaking Struggle for Survival

Monica Arango | April 17, 2023

Family at camp on the Darien Gap

Since leaving his home in Cameroon with his family, Alejandro has crossed more borders and countries than he could have imagined. Despite the difficulties he experienced, the greatest challenge yet was traversing the dense forest known as the Darien Gap. “This path is fatal. People are dying. I have seen bodies on the path. I have seen people there, in the forest. We try to ask for help, to be rescued, but it is not easy,” he said. I met Alejandro a couple of months ago when I visited the Colombia-Panama border with a group of organizations that are a part of the Como Nacido Entre Nosotros* network, including CWS. Every year on this border thousands of people risk their lives and those of their families to reach Central America, continue on the dangerous route, and if they succeed, arrive in the United States to conquer their dream of a better and safer life.

This journey is a struggle for survival. It’s a mixture of fear of the unknown and desperation for a different reality, a way out.

The few belongings of migrants set out to dry at the camp

During our visit to one of the migrant camps, I spoke with other families like Alejandro’s. They courageously opened their hearts and told me about their dreams and the horrible events they experienced in the jungle. There was a common sentiment shared amongst them. They told me, “If I had known what this path was going to be like, I would have never done it”.

The misinformation issue is tremendous. People trust and get taken away by illegal groups that offer them a “safe” trip to fulfill their dreams. In the midst of great vulnerability, lack of opportunities and poor quality of life, families end up leaving their homes and risk sacrificing large amounts of money demanded of them (between $150 and $300 dollars) to take them “to the other side of the world”. There are WhatsApp channels, ads on social media and even clandestine travel agencies that do not fulfill dreams, they bury them.

Second to the border between Mexico and the United States, the border between Colombia and Panama is the most dangerous. According to the National Migration Service of Panama, in 2022, more than 238,000 people of more than 70 nationalities crossed this border illegally. This figure is historically high* and demands attention and action from nations and societies.

Migrants arriving to camp at the Darien Gap

At the camp, I saw hungry and scared children; sick people with injuries from accidents; families who survived terrifying storms while crossing the swamp, and rain and cold in the jungle; individuals who had lost everything but their passports which hung around their necks inside small plastic bags.

I also saw families crying, desperate asking for help rescuing their children, brothers and sisters, or parents who had lost the battle in the jungle and from whom they had not heard for several days. I saw the impotence in the faces of doctors, volunteers and community leaders who, with few resources, came to basic but dignifying help.

Children partake in activities led by volunteers at the camp

We are experiencing worldwide political, economic and social turbulence that has led to a massive exodus of people looking for things so basic that you, reading this text, probably already have it: a roof to sleep under and a simple meal.

“I want what anyone wants: a house and comfort for my family, to be at peace, to be able to offer a future for my children,” Alejandro told me before getting on the bus that would take him and his family to Costa Rica. I haven’t heard from him for three months, nor from the people I met in the midst of so much pain and need. For months now, along with the others that visited the camp that day, I have been wondering what happened to those families. Did they reach the US-Mexico border? Are they okay?

I wonder, what can we do? The mission and commitment is monumental but it begins with us.

You can help prevent more families and individuals from risking their lives on the Darien Gap, by joining CWS’ mission to offer food, safety and opportunities to communities worldwide. When leaving their country is the only option left, CWS provides people seeking asylum protection and comfort on the journey to safety and when they arrive at their new home. Join us in this life-saving work by donating here.

*Como Nacido Entre Nosotros is a regional campaign and network of faith-based global humanitarian organizations that focus on protecting migrants and refugees.

*In 2021, the number of people who crossed the Darien Gap was 133,000. In 2022, the number nearly doubled.

Monica Arango is CWS’ Communications Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean.