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Migrants in Peril: The Many Dangers of the Darien Gap and Beyond
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An unprecedented number of migrants have passed through the dangerous Darien Gap this year in an effort to seek safety, with over 150,000 making the journey.[1] The surge of people crossing into Panama and traveling up towards the U.S. southern border with Mexico is a humanitarian issue for refugee and immigration authorities on both sides of the border. Although Title 42 is set to expire on December 21, there are still concerns given that, in October of this year, the Biden administration sought to expand Title 42 and expel Venezuelan migrants without being able to seek asylum[2] before a federal court declared the extension unlawful in November.[3] In addition, the U.S. added increased restrictions specifically on Venezuelan migrants along with other countries enacting similar visa restrictions along with an agreement with Mexico to expel Venezuelans that crossed the border irregularly. These new restrictions mean that many Venezuelans and other migrants can no longer fly directly into Mexico to get to the border, and thus have been forced to seek alternate means, often leaving Darien as the only affordable or logistically available option even despite the dangers present.[4]

The Darien Gap represents a critical intersection of distinct but mutually intensifying human rights concerns. This includes the health and safety of migrants and refugees, the preponderance of targeted gender-based violence and sexual exploitation, environmental degradation affiliated with increased traffic, negative effects on local indigenous populations native to Darien, and the fragility of humanitarian conditions on both sides of the passage. These are significant considerations for U.S. asylum programs as the approaching deadline for Title 42 has led to a surge in migrants attempting to cross or wait at the border in Mexico in the hopes that they can gain entry later this month.[5] This is a moment of urgency for the Biden administration not to repeat past mistakes and inhumane policies towards migrant families and asylum seekers.

A confluence of deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and human rights challenges in Central and South America has led to a significant increase in migration, particularly among vulnerable refugee populations from Venezuela, Haiti, and Cuba who had already fled their homes to seek safety and are now on the move again. Displaced refugees and migrants face xenophobic discrimination and limited access to labor markets and healthcare, pushing many to cross the Darien Gap in hopes of making it to the U.S. Specifically, recent worsening conditions for Venezuelan migrants in Colombia has led many to embark on this perilous journey, making them now the largest population among recent migrants. The increase in people fleeing also includes a substantial increase in minors, over 32,000, undertaking the excursion, including at least 900 unaccompanied minors.[6] It is urgent that the U.S. significantly increase funding and expand infrastructure for temporary accommodations and process asylum claims in order to meet basic standards of human rights and avoid catastrophe in the coming months. It is crucial that the Biden administration adequately prepare for an influx of asylees, with particular attention to the needs of minors and other vulnerable groups in order to avoid the pitfalls and repeating the abuses and neglect of basic rights under previous administrations.

A Perilous Area

The Darien Gap is a stretch of dense rainforest between Colombia and Panama that stretches just over 60 miles, notoriously difficult to traverse even under normal circumstances for expert outdoorsmen. The only way to cross by this stretch of land is by foot, at extreme risk. There are rushing rivers that are difficult to cross, steep and rapidly changing mountainous terrain, and heavy rainfall that may cause flash flooding. There are dangerous predators such as crocodiles in the water, venomous snakes, and insects carrying tropical diseases. Beyond this, the explosion of traffic through Darien means a deterioration of already precarious pathways, as well as reports of a growing number of corpses along the route.[7] Significant injuries are common and medical NGOs in Panama and Costa Rica are overwhelmed and have difficulty treating all of the health needs of migrants who have made it through the gap.

Gangs and other criminal enterprises take advantage of the lack of state presence in this stretch of jungle, often resulting in extortion, theft, and violent interactions with migrants. Gender-based violence and sexual assaults on migrants, as well as sexual exploitation for payment to guides and traffickers, occur at an alarming rate in Darien. This means that access to appropriate healthcare, including emergency contraception, STI treatment, and trauma-based care are critical for victims, but an already overburdened system of state and NGO-based services in neighboring countries makes victims doubly vulnerable. Beyond the gendered dangers to migrants,[8] this increase in travel and criminal activity also affect local indigenous populations by forced cooperation with gangs as well as by deforestation and the degradation of the natural resources upon which these tribes depend.[9]


The Darien Gap represents the growing precarity for migrants and asylum seekers on the move. Earlier this month the UNHCR and IOM launched a plan to provide an additional $1.7 billion in aid funding for Venezuelan refugees and migrants.[10] However, the U.S. and other individual states and organizations need to coordinate an increased commitment to providing support and expanding infrastructure to avoid perpetuating further harms to migrants fleeing poverty and refugees escaping persecution and extrajudicial killings. It is crucial that the Biden administration increase admissions caps, offer expanded humanitarian parole options to those who have endured some of the worst abuses crossing the Darien gap, and the most vulnerable populations among incoming Venezuelan, Haitian, Cuban and Nicaraguan migrants with legitimate claims for asylum. Continuing to make them wait for extended periods of time in border camps in Mexico, or continuing expulsions potentially undermines the government’s commitments to international laws that protect the rights of migrants and refugees.

Courtney Levine is a first year graduate student at American University's School of International Service in the Ethics, Peace and Human Rights program. She is originally from Miami, Florida, and has a BA in International Relations from Goucher College. She has spent the last several years working in contemporary art and public art programming primarily as a project manager and assistant curator. In addition to her professional work, Courtney spent many recent years participating in grassroots organizing and human rights activism in South Florida. This passion for human rights and social justice is what prompted Courtney to return to the field of International Relations and to pursue a graduate degree at AU to better serve human rights concerns from a more policy driven approach. 

Works Cited

Idler, Annette & Zulver, Julia. “Gendering the border effect: the double impact of Colombian insecurity and the Venezuelan refugee crisis.” Third World Quarterly. Apr 16, 2020. https://www-tandfonline-com.proxyau.wrlc.org/doi/pdf/10.1080/01436597.2020.1744130?needAccess=true&

Roy, Diana. “Crossing the Darien Gap: Migrants Risk Death on the Journey to the U.S.” Council on Foreign Relations. June 22, 2022. https://www.cfr.org/article/crossing-darien-gap-migrants-risk-death-journey-us

Taylor, Luke. “Record numbers of people risking lives to cross Darién Gap to US.” The Guardian. Oct 13, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/13/record-numbers-risking-lives-cross-darien-gap-us-migration-poverty-humanitarian-crisis

Villagran, Lauren. “Asylum seekers, migrants cross en masse at Texas-Mexico border as Title 42 nears end.” USA Today. Dec 12, 2022. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2022/12/12/mass-migrant-crossing-title-42/10885093002/

“DHS Announces New Migration Enforcement Process for Venezuelans.” Department of Homeland Security. Oct 12, 2022. https://www.dhs.gov/news/2022/10/12/dhs-announces-new-migration-enforcement-process-venezuelans?fbclid=IwAR3gmfwvA3Pq-mZjhuXhkWVgWAcQGLV9PO4V9_1LtGBUcvnvEjFVgjqOfPE

“IN EASTERN PANAMA, INDIGENOUS PEOPLES FIGHT DEFORESTATION AS THEY’RE SCAPEGOATED FOR IT.” Rainforest Foundation US. Aug 9, 2022.  https://rainforestfoundation.org/darien-indigenous-people-fight-deforestation/

“Mexico/Central America: New Visa Restrictions Harm Venezuelans.” Human Rights Watch. July 5, 2022. https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/07/05/mexico/central-america-new-visa-restrictions-harm-venezuelans

“Record number of children crossing the Darien Gap toward the US this year.” UNICEF. Nov 19, 2022. https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/record-number-children-crossing-darien-gap-toward-us-year

“UNHCR, IOM and partners appeal for US$1.72 billion for refugees and migrants from Venezuela.” UNHCR. Dec 1, 2022. https://www.unhcr.org/en-in/news/press/2022/12/6388b0034/unhcr-iom-partners-appeal-us172-billion-refugees-migrants-venezuela.html

“US/Mexico: Expelling Venezuelans Threatens Rights, Lives.” Human Rights Watch. Oct 21, 2022. https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/10/21/us/mexico-expelling-venezuelans-threatens-rights-lives

NANCY GIMENA HUISHA-HUISHA, et al., Plaintiffs, v. Civil Action No. 21-100 (EGS)

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS, in his official capacity, Secretary, Department of Homeland Security, et al., Defendants. “Civil Action No. 21-100.” United States District Court For The District Of Columbia. Nov 15, 2022. https://immigrantjustice.org/sites/default/files/content-type/press-release/documents/2022-11/165-Huisha-MSJ-opinion.pdf


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/13/record-numbers-risking-lives-cross-darien-gap-us-migration-poverty-humanitarian-crisis

[2] https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/10/21/us/mexico-expelling-venezuelans-threatens-rights-lives


[3] https://immigrantjustice.org/sites/default/files/content-type/press-release/documents/2022-11/165-Huisha-MSJ-opinion.pdf

[4] https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/07/05/mexico/central-america-new-visa-restrictions-harm-venezuelans

[5] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2022/12/12/mass-migrant-crossing-title-42/10885093002/

[6] https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/record-number-children-crossing-darien-gap-toward-us-year

[7] https://www.cfr.org/article/crossing-darien-gap-migrants-risk-death-journey-us

[8] https://www-tandfonline-com.proxyau.wrlc.org/doi/pdf/10.1080/01436597.2020.1744130?needAccess=true&

[9] https://rainforestfoundation.org/darien-indigenous-people-fight-deforestation/

[10] https://www.unhcr.org/en-in/news/press/2022/12/6388b0034/unhcr-iom-partners-appeal-us172-billion-refugees-migrants-venezuela.html

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