The number of migrants and asylum seekers who have crossed an inhospitable stretch of Central American jungle known as the Darien Gap so far this year has surpassed the record total set in 2022, according to Panama’s government.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Deputy Director of Migration Maria Isabel Saravia said that more than 248,901 people have crossed the perilous 265km (165 miles) sliver of land between Colombia and Panama since January.
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Saravia added that approximately 20 percent were children, nearly half of them aged five or younger.
“Unfortunately, today the record for the total was broken, which had been unprecedented in 2022,” she told the Spanish-language news agency EFE. “We are facing a humanitarian crisis of major proportions.”
The growing number of trips through the Darien Gap, once believed to be so dangerous as to be uncrossable, has come to symbolise the risks migrants and asylum seekers are willing to take for a better life elsewhere.
In April, the United Nations warned the number of migrants and asylum seekers navigating the region was on track to hit 400,000 this year, an unprecedented total.
Of those who crossed so far, more than 100,000 have come from the South American country of Venezuela, which has experienced a massive exodus as it struggles with economic turmoil and a humanitarian crisis.
About 33,000 Haitians also made the journey since January, as have 25,000 people from Ecuador and 8,500 from China.
In the Darien Gap, they face steep mountains and tangled rainforest, as well as criminal groups who subject migrants and asylum seekers to violence, extortion and sexual assault.
Reflecting on 2022’s record migrant and asylum seeker totals, the representatives from the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM) noted that many who perish in the Darien Gap are never documented or found. Others suffer long-term trauma.
“The stories we have heard from those who have crossed the Darien Gap attest to the horrors of this journey,” Giuseppe Loprete, the IOM’s chief of mission in Panama, said in a statement in January.
“Many have lost their lives or gone missing, while others come out of it with significant health issues, both physical and mental, to which we and our partners are responding.”
Statistics for crossings in 2022 showed that the number of migrants and asylum seekers travelling through the Darien Gap had nearly doubled from 2021.
Of that total, 32,488 children crossed by foot between January and October of last year, according to the UN children’s rights organisation UNICEF. That too was a record.
Young migrants and asylum seekers have taken to social media apps like TikTok to document their experiences and share advice for traversing the dangerous terrain.
Many of those who hazard the journey are heading northwards to destinations like the United States. But in April, the US took steps to stem the flow of migrants and asylum seekers to its southern border.
It announced an agreement with Panamanian and Colombian authorities to stop the “illicit movement of people” through the Darien Gap. That agreement involved a 60-day campaign to step up immigration enforcement efforts in the region, address poor economic conditions and create new legal migration pathways.
But the plan was met with scepticism from immigration and human rights organisations.
“The language in this statement is vague on purpose. How exactly do they intend to end migration thru the Darien Gap + ‘reduce poverty, create jobs’ in 60 days?” the group Al Otro Lado asked at the time.