‘This Hell Was My Only Option’: Migrants Pushed to Cross Darién Gap at Colombia-Panama Border

In a scathing report published this week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) raised grave concerns about the restrictions on movement imposed by governments in the Americas that have pushed migrants and asylum seekers to risk their lives crossing the Darién Gap, a swampy jungle at the Colombia-Panama border.

The 62-page report, “‘This Hell Was My Only Option’: Abuses Against Migrants and Asylum Seekers Pushed to Cross the Darién Gap,” is the first in a series of Human Rights Watch reports on migration via the Darién Gap. The New York-based watchdog found that restrictions on movement from South American countries to Mexico and Central America have helped contribute to sharp increases in numbers of people crossing the Darién Gap.

This exposes migrants to abuses, including sexual violence, and empowers organized crime in the area, according to the group. “The devastating stories we heard in the Darién Gap are the result of failed immigration policies that push people into danger and abuse,” said Juanita Goebertus, Americas director at HRW. “The increasing immigration challenges in our region require new, region-wide policies that ensure the rights of people on the move.”

A Haitian family arrive at a temporary reception centre in Panama after crossing the Darién Gap. (UNICEF/Jose Daniel Urdaneta)

Half a million people have crossed Darién Gap

Over the last year, over half a million people have crossed the Darién Gap on their journey north, often to the United States, fleeing human rights crises in the Americas, including violence and persecution, and escaping poverty. Venezuelans, Haitians, and Ecuadorians, along with people from other regions like Asia and Africa, risk their lives in this difficult terrain. Since January 2022, over 440,000 Venezuelans have crossed the Darién Gap, the largest number for any nationality. They are fleeing an ongoing humanitarian emergency in their country, which has undermined access to food and medicine, as well as abuses and persecution by security forces, armed groups, and gangs.

HRW visited the Darién Gap four times between April 2022 and June 2023 and interviewed almost 300 people to document the drivers and responses to this crisis. Those interviewed included migrants and asylum seekers who had or were about to make the crossing, victims of serious abuses, aid workers, Colombian and Panamanian authorities, and migration experts from across the region. Researchers also reviewed data and reports by the Colombian, Panamanian, and US governments; UN agencies; international, regional, and local human rights and humanitarian organizations; and local legal clinics.

Long walk amid fear of robbery and abuse

The rights group found that visa requirements imposed by Mexico and Central American governments contribute to the increase in migrants crossing the Darién Gap. Following the imposition of visa requirements by some of these countries for Venezuelans and Ecuadorians in 2021 and 2022, the numbers of people of both nationalities crossing the Darién Gap have skyrocketed, suggesting a cause-and-effect relationship. During their days-long walk across the gap, migrants and asylum seekers of all nationalities frequently experience robbery and serious abuses, including sexual violence.

“On the Colombian side of the Darién Gap, the Gulf Clan, an armed group involved in drug trafficking, regulates the routes that migrants and asylum seekers can use, decides who can assist them on the way, extorts people who benefit from migrant flows, and establishes rules of conduct for locals and migrants alike, at times enforcing these rules through violence. The Colombian military estimates that the Clan collects, on average, US$125 per person crossing the Darién Gap. If the estimate is accurate, the armed group may have made a total of US$57 million between January and October 2023 from its control over this migration route,” the HRW said.

Criminals and bandits prey upon migrants and asylum seekers as they cross the many routes through the jungle, especially on the Panamanian side. People are routinely robbed, sexually abused, and at times raped. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF or Doctors without Borders) has assisted 950 people, most of them women, who reported sexual violence crossing the Darién Gap since April 2021.

1984 Cartagena Declaration

Governments in the Americas should implement rights-respecting immigration policies that build on the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, signed by 21 states in 2022, according to HRW. “They should seize the upcoming 40th anniversary of the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, a landmark international instrument on refugees’ rights in Latin America, to respond to the increasing migration challenges in the region.”

The rights watchdog argued that governments should put in place a region-wide temporary protection system that would grant all Venezuelans and Haitians legal status for a reasonably timed and renewable term and ensure that their visa requirements do not effectively prevent access to asylum and push people to resort to dangerous crossings, including the Darién Gap.

It said governments should also take steps toward creating an equitable and rights-focused regional mechanism to determine the responsibility of countries to examine asylum claims and protect refugees, considering individual factors, like social or family ties and individual choices, to the extent possible. Governments should distribute costs equitably and offer member states incentives for sharing responsibility. “Whether fleeing persecution or seeking economic opportunities, migrants and asylum seekers deserve safe and dignified ways to move,” Goebertus said. “They are all entitled to basic safety and respect for their human rights during their journey.”

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