Dense, deadly jungle between Colombia, Panama takes toll on migrant children

By Ana de Leon

Bajo Chiquito, Panama, Oct 18 (EFE).- Cristian cries incessantly after arriving with his mother and younger brother in this Panamanian village on the other side of the notorious Darien Gap, a stretch of thick, perilous jungle that forms a natural border between Central and South America.

The four-year-old boy cries because he wants Agencia Efe’s camera; he cries because his mother, Maria Pernalete, cleans his feet covered with infected insect bites; he cries when ointment is applied to his cuts and when he is forced to take medicine to bring down his fever.

Crossing the Darien Gap “was horrible,” Pernalete, a 34-year-old mother, told Efe about that missing, 106-kilometer (66-mile) section of the Pan American Highway between Yaviza, Panama, and Turbo, Colombia. “It’s the worst thing that can happen to a human being.”

That jungle- and swamp-covered expanse, whose myriad dangers include turbulent rivers, steep, muddy hills, drug- and people-trafficking gangs and potentially deadly snakes, spiders and insects, is considered one of world’s most treacherous migrant routes.

It is unclear how many people have died in the Darien Gap amid the current wave of humanity. The migrants Efe spoke to say people die from falls or injuries or because they are simply too sick and weak to continue.

Others drown in swollen rivers or fall victim to criminal gangs.

Even so, the number of migrants who have crossed that lawless, road-less region in their United States-bound journey has continued to surge: more than 187,000 thus far in 2022, according to Panamanian authorities.

That figure is sharply higher than the record total of 133,726 migrant crossings last year.

In its August 2022 situation report, Unicef forecast that at least 180,000 people (a figure that has already been surpassed) would have crossed the Darien Gap by year’s end, including 30,000 children.

The crisis is being driven by an exodus of migrants from crisis-hit Venezuela, who make up an estimated 70 percent of those embarking on that dangerous trek. But other migrants hail from Haiti, Colombia and even from as far away as Bangladesh, India, Somalia and the Philippines, according to International Organization for Migration figures.

“It’s one of the years with the largest number of people crossing Darien, particularly boys, girls and adolescents,” Margarita Sanchez, a Unicef child protection in emergencies officer in Darien, Panama, told Efe.

Pernalete said she left the northwestern Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto because she could no longer feed her family, initially traveling to Ecuador. She later returned to her homeland and decided to migrate northward through Central America with her husband and their two children aged two and four.

Upon arrival in Bajo Chiquito, a small village in eastern Panama that is about 33 km north of Yaviza and the spot where most migrants exit the jungle, she went barefoot to its lone makeshift health center.

Her two young sons are suffering from fever, vomiting, diarrhea and nightmares, and a long journey still lies ahead.

“If I’d known, I wouldn’t have done it. Those four days I spent in the jungle were the worst days of my life. Both for my kids and for me. My son asked us to stop walking,” Pernalete said amid sobs, though adding that she still holds out hope of reaching the US and providing a better life for her children.

The harshness of the jungle leaves physical and psychological scars in child migrants. According to Unicef, many boys and girls “have seen things in the jungle they shouldn’t have seen” at a young age.

Minors arrive with “anxiety, stress,” and many “miss their friends, family members or their home countries,” Sanchez said.

“You have to understand they’re children who have been migrating for a long time. This isn’t their first time. This means they’ve been out of school” and they are longing to “reach their final destination,” she added.

The number of unaccompanied and separated young boys and girls and adolescents making that treacherous crossing totaled 618 through Sept. 22, more than triple the number (205) for all of 2021, according to Sanchez.

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