The border area between Panama and Colombia is witnessing a humanitarian crisis as a record number of migrants and refugees cross the dangerous Darién Gap, a dense tropical jungle that connects South and Central America. According to the UN rights office (OHCHR), more than 330,000 people have crossed the Darién Gap on their way to the US so far this year, exceeding the total number of crossings in 20221. One in five of them is a child.
The migrants and refugees, who come mainly from Venezuela, Haiti, Ecuador, and other countries, face multiple human rights violations and abuses during the crossing, including sexual violence, murder, disappearance, trafficking, robbery, and intimidation by organized crime groups and bandits. They also suffer from severe dehydration, physical injuries, and mental trauma as they trek through the swampy jungle for up to 10 days. Many of them see decaying bodies along the route.
The humanitarian organizations that provide shelter, food, health care, and water and sanitation for those on the move are overwhelmed by the influx of people and are unable to cope with the increasing needs. The three migration centers run by the government of Panama with the support of the international community are stretched beyond their capacity and face shortages of safe drinking water and sleeping spaces. The transit towns in Colombia are also unsafe, overcrowded, and unsanitary.
The UN rights office has called on the international community to strengthen its support to the states in the Americas to close protection gaps and to address the structural factors that force people to leave their homes. The UN migration agency (IOM) and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) have also urged a collaborative, comprehensive, and regional approach to respond to the humanitarian and protection needs of people on the move across the whole Latin America and Caribbean region.