Migrant numbers at jungle crossing point to a record-breaking year for irregular migration in North America

Haitian migrants wade through a river as they cross the Darien Gap, from Colombia into Panama, hoping to reach the U.S. on Oct. 15, 2022. One expert says the number of migrants making the perilous crossing suggests this summer will break all previous records for irregular migration into North America. (Fernando Vergara/Associated Press - image credit)

Warning: A video linked in this piece contains graphic images

The most feared stretch on the long migrant trail to the Rio Grande — and ultimately to Roxham Road — is a stretch of untamed, roadless jungle on the border between Colombia and Panama.

Hundreds of thousands of people have crossed the Darien Gap on foot. Many have perished in the attempt. The trails through the jungle are strewn with the abandoned belongings and, in some cases, the bodies of those who set out on a gruelling journey that involves at least four river crossings.

The area is full of hazards, both human and natural.

The region is dominated by dangerous criminal networks based mostly on the Colombian side, such as the Clan del Golfo.

In recent years, the government of Panama has tried to at least maintain a count of the number of people crossing through. Statistics collected by Panama's Department of Migration show about 800 people a day crossing through the Darien Gap in January and February — normally the slowest period of the year, because some rivers are too low to operate the motor launches known as "piraguas."

During the same two months last year, only about 150 people were crossing per day. In January and February of 2021, it was only about 50 per day.

"We are very concerned about the situation, especially because in these months normally it's calmer and then later we see the peak," said Giuseppe Loprete of the UN's International Organization of Migration in Panama. "Minutes ago I was here with Panama's minister of security talking about this."

"Criminal networks are getting stronger. It's a huge business."

Fernando Vergara/Associated Press
Fernando Vergara/Associated Press

Migrant numbers typically soar dramatically during the peak crossing months of August to October. In 2021, each of those three months saw more than 25,000 people cross the Darien Gap, and in 2022 the numbers rose from 30,000 in August to 60,000 in October.

If the pattern holds, it suggests that this summer will break all previous records, said Tyler Mattiace of Human Rights Watch, who spoke to CBC News from Mexico City.

A record year in the making

"This huge increase that we're seeing in the number of people who are crossing the Darien indicates first of all that the the root causes that are driving people to flee their countries and to attempt to travel north to reach the United States have gotten worse," said Mattiace, who works with the Human Rights Watch migration unit.

Where only a few thousand people a year would have made the trip in earlier times, he said, "travelling through the Darien is now becoming normalized as a way of making that trip. It indicates also that people are more desperate.

"It indicates that 2023 will be the year with possibly the highest number of people crossing the Darien in history."

Mattiace said most of those who crossed the Darien in January and February have not yet made it to the U.S. border.

"It typically takes a few months for those who cross the Darien to reach northern Mexico, although some with more money will be able to make the trip faster," he said.

"The speed and ease with which you can travel depends on how much money you're bringing with you. Even across the Darien there are different routes and different options that are safer and easier for people who have a few hundred dollars to spend on a boat to bring them around the most dangerous part of the jungle."

Fernando Vergara/Associated Press
Fernando Vergara/Associated Press

Mattiace said the Panamanian government, reacting to a recent bus crash, has reduced the number of buses it provides to transport migrants to the country's north.

"And now there are a lot of people who have been waiting for weeks in camps in southern Panama," he said.

"People might need to spend time in Guatemala or Honduras. I've spoken to people who said, 'I had to stop in Honduras to make enough money to be able to pay the bribes that I needed to pay to be able to continue on my journey.'"

"It's easier," he said, for migrants who can afford to fly or take a bus. "The reality is that a lot of people are walking and taking buses when that is a reasonable option for them, and then it's a question of a few months."

Separating children from parents

Mexico has been receiving a large number of northbound migrants recently, causing consternation in the Mexican government and a wave of new restrictions across Central America.

The Panamanian statistics show another worrying trend: a rise in the proportion of children, including unaccompanied minors, among the migrants — a trend that has also been picked up at the U.S. border.

In January, underage migrants accounted for more than a third of the total number crossing the Darien for the first time, and the same held true in February.

Juan Pappier of the group Human Rights Watch noted last week that Panamian government statistics show recent increases in both the number and proportion of minors among migrants.

The head of Mexico's migration agency INAMI this week suggested that his country might take a page from the Trump administration and begin separating children from parents — an idea strenuously condemned by human rights organizations.

"I gave instructions that, if necessary, children should be taken away from their parents so that we can protect the higher interest, which is childhood, and we're not going to allow them to put them in danger even if they're the parents," said Francisco Garduno Yanez, commissioner of INAMI.

"We have to see whether this was just an off-the-cuff remark by the director of the immigration agency or whether the agency really intends to pursue this as a policy," said Mattiace, who adds that separating migrant children from their parents would be illegal under Mexican law.

Fernando Vergara/Associated Press
Fernando Vergara/Associated Press

A growing Haitian exodus

The composition of the migrant stream is changing in other ways, too. A growing number of them are Haitians.

Of the 49,291 who crossed the Darien in January and February, 16,744 were Haitians.

Haitians are generally thought to be one of the nationalities most likely to continue their journeys as far as Canada, for reasons of language and family connections.

While the Mexican government accuses parents who bring children with them of exposing them to unnecessary danger, many Haitian parents have every reason to feel they are in even more danger in Haiti — especially in the capital, where gangs have ruthlessly targeted school-age children.

"A lot of Haitians leave with the entire family," says IOM's Loprete. "So we see a lot of people coming in threes or fours, with one or two children. This is very problematic because the Darien is really dangerous for everybody, even more for for little children."

"And many cases that we are observing is children that are accompanied at the beginning, and they arrived in Panama not accompanied anymore because they lost their parents during the transit."

Loprete told CBC News that he has heard many stories of migrants being abused by smugglers. "They were brought up to a point on a hill in the Darien and the person who organized the travel said just continue here, it's 15 minutes. You will see the first village and then they will assist you from there. The reality is that it is not 15 minutes, it's five days. And of course in five days everything can happen."

U.S., fearing a migrant wave, leans on Canada

U.S. officials, who have effectively outsourced a great deal of migration enforcement to Mexico and Central American countries, are normally very aware of fluctuations in migration. The Biden administration has given every indication that it is concerned about potential increases in unregulated crossings and the effect they could have on the 2024 election.

It has put pressure on Canada to take charge of the deteriorating situation in Haiti — partly in an attempt to prevent the kind of outflow of people that the Panamanian statistics suggest is already happening.

Mattiace said some of those headed north through the Darien did not depart directly from Haiti, but are still responding to events on the island.

"One of the things that we found from speaking to Haitians in the Darien is that many of them have already tried to establish themselves in another country in the Americas, in Chile, in Brazil and Colombia," he said. "And they often face a lot of challenges that can include legal challenges, they can include racism against Haitians, which is a really serious issue in South America.

"And they can simply include the fact that as the situation gets worse in Haiti, they feel more of an obligation to send money back home to help. And we spoke to people who said, 'I made enough in Brazil maybe to support myself, but I didn't make enough to also send money to my family in Haiti, and with the situation the way it is in Haiti, I need to be able to send money back to them.'"