PANAMA – What started out as migrant caravans winding their way north from Latin America has become an unbroken pipeline of people seeking to move to the United States. The vast majority of these migrants hail from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. But the media attention they've garnered is leading to a surge in migrants from other countries as well – and these are coming from all across the world.
The US Border Patrol apprehended more than 404,000 people crossing America's borders in the fiscal year 2018. By mid-May, this year's total already exceeded that number by more than 60,000 people. But despite the perception that all of them come from Central America, the surge actually begins much further south and is composed of refugees from over 40 countries.
The Perilous Journey Through the Darien Gap
The Darien Gap is a lawless region 60 miles wide that forms the border between Panama and Colombia, and the Panamanian government is seeing its own surge of illegal migration, as people from countries around the world must undertake the perilous trek through the jungle on their way to join the migrant caravans heading to the US.
A Flood of Human Beings
Once the rainy season begins, a dugout canoe on the river is the way that people travel. If you can't get there by boat then pretty much you can't get there. And it's especially dangerous in the beginning of the wet season because they get rain that's measured in feet, not inches, and that causes flash flooding. But the real flood they have to deal with right now is a flood of human beings.
Alan Foster is a missionary who works with indigenous groups in the Darien. He says the situation is worse than it's ever been.
Walking Over "Clothed Skeletons" in the Jungle
"It's a very dark area, largely controlled by guerrillas and paramilitaries," Foster told us. "There's a lot of hardship, both physical and spiritual oppression that's happening right now to the peoples there. The journey to get to the Darien Gap takes anywhere from five to eight days to walk. Depending on the weather there may or may not be water, there are parts that are nearly impassable where people have to crawl on all fours, and people are literally traipsing over the top of clothed skeletons to be able to get through. Not all of them make it."
The Panamanian Border Police, known as Senafront, has been struggling to cope as the flow of migrants went from a few dozen a week to now sometimes hundreds every day.
Panama Struggles to Cope
Senafront officer Lt. Felipe Caceres said, "Every day there are arriving a lot of people, from different countries, and you know Panama is a small country. We try to do our best but I'm sure we need more help. There are a lot of pregnant women, many children that are sick...and we try to provide them with water, food, security, health [care]."
Many Migrants Never Make it Out Alive
The migrants that are coming through this part of the Darien, deep in the jungle, don't just have to deal with crossing rivers or the natural hazards like bugs and wild animals, snakes, scorpions, things like that. They also have to deal with armed bands of thugs who rob these migrants as they come through the jungle. And many of them never come out alive.
A Cameroonian man told us, "When they came, they pointed a gun. They robbed me. They took my bag, the phone I had. When they took the bags, they went to the bush, they went with one lady inside the forest."
One group of migrants fled violence in the West African country of Cameroon, but they had no idea what they would face when they entered the jungles of Colombia.
"It Was Like Hell"
One woman said, "Dead bodies. For me, I experienced three...three dead bodies. One man, a lady, and a child."
"It was like hell," a man told us. "If you don't have courage, because the road is terrifying, and robbers...thieves are everywhere."
Migrants who come into the Darien come through villages where there just are not a lot of resources. There is not much food or drinkable water, so the presence of the migrants is causing a strain on the indigenous communities in the area.
A man from Cameroon told us he's been sleeping on the ground in the jungle for about a month. "The camp is overcrowded," he said. "No beds, there are no beds. You sleep on planks."
Another Concern: The Jungle's Fragile Ecosystem at Risk
This is a big concern for the Panamanian government, as this jungle is a fragile ecosystem inhabited by primitive indigenous tribes who can be adversely affected by the flood of migrants.
Lieutenant Colonel Jorge Gobea, a Senafront officer, said, "It's a very tough area, it's a very difficult and restrictive area in between this border. Some of the immigrants died trying to achieve the goal to cross."
"All these guys live in some places in the world that they have native diseases," he went on. "When they came to Panama they bring [those] diseases here. It is the responsibility of the National Health Service to try to preserve the life of our natives."
Because Panama is a choke point for these migrants, the US Border Patrol has agents stationed in the camps, where they take biometric data from every person before they continue north to Costa Rica. But the problem is that Costa Rica will only accept a small number of migrants, perhaps 200 per week. Meanwhile, 200 per day or more are entering Panama, which causes poor conditions in the camps.
We visited a camp where a truckload of migrants from India had just arrived. They were registered and had their biometric information taken – fingerprints, iris scans, photographs, and so forth. They are changed against whatever databases the United States has.
"Baby Darien" Born in Migrant Camp
One young woman from Cuba gave birth do a baby in the migrant camp just three days after coming out of the jungle. She named him after the place where he was born, a permanent reminder of her journey.
But Baby Darien is now a Panamanian citizen, so the Panama authorities say she will not be allowed to travel further until the baby is older, and his mother is not happy at the delay.
Meanwhile, more than three thousand people languish in these camps, hoping to continue their journey north as soon as possible.
The One Bright Side of the Darien Crisis
But Alan Foster says there's a bright side.
"It's a very sad situation, but the people that arrive have just come through one of the most emotionally impactful [sic] experiences of their life and we actually feel it's a really good opportunity for them to be receptive to the gospel here," Foster said.