The number of migrants and refugees who have passed through the Darien Gap reaches historic figures. So far this year, it is estimated that 250,000 migrants and refugees have crossed through the dangerous Darién jungle, mainly from countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Haiti.
NECOCLÍ — It is 7 in the morning at the Necoclí pier. Hundreds of migrants and refugees pack their goods in garbage bags. Then, they wait for their name to be called by the company that organizes the boats that will take them to Capurganá or Acandí.
Necoclí, a small Colombian fishing town on the Caribbean coast, has become the hub from where daily masses of people fleeing their countries set out for the Darién Gap — a tropical jungle route beset with wild animals and criminal gangs that connects Colombia to Panama. The journey to the UN camps in Panama can take up to seven days, depending on the conditions along the way.
In May this year, the US revoked Title 42, an emergency restriction imposed during the Trump administration. While on paper the order was meant to stop the spread of Covid-19, in practice it served to block the flow of migrants by allowing border officials to expel them without the opportunity to request asylum.
The termination of Title 42 has seen a dramatic increase in the number of migrants and refugees seeking the "American dream". According to the UN, more than 250,000 people have used the Darién Gap this year, over half of them Venezuelans.
“We estimate that nearly 500 people are leaving every day for the Darién Gap as of today,” says Maria Camila, a psychologist at the International Organization for Migration (IOM). “The migratory patterns have changed. The majority of the people passing through Necoclí now are Venezuelans and Ecuadorians, followed by Asians. Haitians were a large presence earlier, but their number has fallen significantly.”
Nightfall on the beach in Necocli
A battle for survival
The morning I visit the Necoclí beach, a large crowd of people are trying raise money to pay for the boat to get to the other side of the Gulf of Urabá and start their journey through the jungle. Many of them could be stranded here for weeks and even months, waiting to put together the $180 that the guides demand to take them to the border with Panama. From that point, they are on their own until they reach one of the UN camps.
The rivers that cross this jungle can rise, becoming deadly traps.
Cheo and Ariana are a Venezuelan couple making their second attempt to escape to the U.S. in search of a better future for themselves and their five-year-old daughter. They left their daughter in Venezuela this time around due to the dangers that the route entails. Aside of the threat from armed groups and wildlife, it rains here almost every day, so the roads can become slippery and the rivers can swell into deadly traps.
“Nine months ago we crossed the Darién jungle just as the U.S. border was closed to Venezuelans, and we ended up stranded for a while in Costa Rica,” says Ariana. “Later, when we arrived in Mexico, we realized that we had no chance at all. We got an appointment to request political asylum nine months later.”
“When you leave the jungle, you are exhausted because you have to fight a battle to survive in there,” adds Cheo. “We did it once with our daughter, but she is afraid and didn’t want to go through it all over again. We are here to fight for her.”
A group of migrants put their clothes out to dry on the beach in Necocli
Goodbye, and good luck
While most migrants and refugees use the Capurganá or Acandí route, there is another group comprising mostly Chinese people who choose to pay a higher price and make the journey to the Panama border by sea. According to the Panamanian government, 1,300 migrants from China crossed the Darién Gap in 2022, almost three times more than in all of the previous decade put together.
In Necoclí, they can be seen bathing on the beach or eating in restaurants, a sign of their relative prosperity compared to the Venezuelans or Ecuadorians. Most of them have decided to escape the lack of freedom under the Chinese regime by taking advantage of the relaxation of anti-COVID measures in the country.
I want to go back one day.
One of them is Ann, a 28-year-old woman from Guangzhou. Her visa application to visit her aunt who lives in the US was rejected.
“I had to fly from Hong Kong to Dubai and then go through Turkey, Spain, and Ecuador before I could finally arrive here,” she says with a smile. “I like China. I want to go back one day, but right now all I want is to be with my aunt, who has recently lost her husband.”
When she says goodbye after our brief conversation, I notice a tattoo on her arm that reads "Good luck". It’s a fitting farewell message for everyone waiting for a passage through Darién Gap.