If you wanted to cross the entire American continent from Alaska to Argentina, you would drive on the Pan-American highway, the longest road in the world.

This road runs through 14 countries and covers an immense number of ecosystems and landscapes. There is a sixty-mile-wide (roughly 100 km) point between Panama and Colombia, though, where this road gets interrupted. A wild, untouched, virgin portion of rainforest spreads over the two nations and renders it virtually impossible for the infrastructure to continue. This is known as the Darien Gap.

And no, this is not a lesson in geography. Rather, the Darien Gap has become the focus of many news outlets and humanitarian organisations as a route walked by hundreds of thousands of migrants each year.

What is the Darien Gap and why is it so dangerous?

Map of the Darien Gap
Map of the border between Colombia and Panama, where the Darien Gap stretches. Source: https://www.cfr.org/article/crossing-darien-gap-migrants-risk-death-journey-us

El Tapón del Darién, as it is called in Spanish, consists of a territory between North and South America that stretches on Panama’s Darién Province and the Chocó Department in north-western Colombia. 

This natural wall is one of the rainiest places on the planet and its thickness and unpoliced status make it also one of the most dangerous to venture into. In addition to steep hikes, wild and poisonous animals and rough rivers, drug smugglers, traffickers and outlaws also roam these lands and are counted among the perils migrants face when deciding to traverse it.

Still, each year millions of migrants try their luck and embark on a crossing that might cost them their own life. 

Some make it relatively unharmed at their first attempt, while others are forced to make a U-turn, injured or too tired and walk it back to square one. Some reach Panama but undergo robberies, rapes and violence perpetuated by gangs. Finally, even though the numbers might not seem as impactful, die in the attempt and leave behind an unmistakable reminder of the toughness of the enterprise.

Who crosses the Darien Gap and why?

The answer might seem pretty obvious. However, the amplitude of the issue will definitely leave you speechless. The final destination in the heart of these migrants is the US. Once they reach those borders, they hope that with the new Biden administration, they will be given the chance to not only enter the country but to make a decent living to support their family back home. Or to have them come over in time.

Those who cross the Darien Gap, or at least try to, do not flee only from the neighbouring countries. Some come from the Caribbean isles of Haiti and Cuba, and some others arrive from Venezuela and Brazil, but quite an unexpected number fly in from as far as Angola, Pakistan or India.

And the demographics include not only men but children, the elderly, people with disabilities and women, also pregnant, who left it all and attempt the deadly crossing.

Political instability, wars, economic crises, religious persecutions and climate disasters are all triggers that prompt these people to literally travel across the world to risk it all at their (sometimes) only chance.

Panama views
Photo by Aljoscha Laschgari on Unsplash

Darien Gap in numbers

The migration flux coming from the Darien Gap has been observed for many years. The rise in numbers that were recorded in the most recent ones, though, sounds a loud alarm. 

This year especially, these numbers are expected to reach record heights. The UN is estimating that in 2023 it will count up to 400.000 migrants walking the trail. A worrying number in that it surpasses last year’s record (250.000).

This spike seems to coincide with the worsening economic, social and political conditions in all the origin countries of these people.

What are governments doing?

Right at the fringes of the Darien Gap on the Panama side, humanitarian organisations await for migrants to reach their doors. There, they offer medical and administrative support for migrants in order to receive the status of refugees and hopefully move on towards the US. Crossing the Gap is just the beginning of the journey for these individuals and more kilometres are still to be walked before they reach northern Mexico.

What can I do?

With the risk of repeating oneself, awareness is key in these situations. Awareness not only of what is happening daily at the Darien Gap but of how our own circle is directing attention to migration close to home. How our own communities support the integration of those who managed to reach our city, region or country. 

With SPEAK you can take a first step in the direction of doing just that: sharing your language and culture with migrants, you provide them the tools to take a chance in the new society.

Understanding the local language opens doors to cultural understanding and also, to bridging the divide between what we consider different and our own bubble. A more inclusive world will lessen the need for people to be defensive and will improve collaboration, and integration among all the participants of society, regardless of their origins.

If you wish to know more, check out where we are or be a buddy and share not only your culture but help migrants get a fair new start in their new home.

Author: Valentina Rampazzo

Valentina is a polyglot and a culture deep diver. She has lived in 5 countries across Europe and has most recently joined SPEAK as a Copywriter Intern. Her passions are her plants, plant-based cooking and writing.

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