Darién reaches half a million migrants, still with basic needs to be covered

Keiber Bastidas, his wife Daniela and their two children were already exhausted when they arrived at the gates of Darién. At least 25 days had passed since the day when, tired of the intense work of each month in Ecuador As soon as they had enough to pay rent in Guayaquil, they decided to leave that country for the United States. The exodus from Venezuela five years ago had left them with enough courage to start again from scratch.

This time they were 25 days of walking in the sun and water on eternal roads, risking their lives by ‘muliar’ or climbing onto moving double-trailer trucks, sleeping on the streets and saving the few pesos saved to eat something. 25 days of enduring rejection and xenophobia and from time to time receiving help from private people, without finding shelter or food on those almost 1,900 kilometers of road to Turbo (Antioquia), in northeastern Colombia.

Then they took a boat that took them in an hour and a half across the Caribbean Sea to Acandí (Chocó) and they entered the region for five days. jungle. There they avoided abysses, crossed rivers without knowing how to swim and saw how many were left along the way due to falls or drowning or due to violence exerted by criminals.

These are the same conditions that the almost 500 thousand migrants who have crossed the Darién jungle in 2023. Vulnerabilities add and multiply, and continue to encounter an insufficient and inadequate response. Every new year the number breaks the record again, but the answer continues to be lack of protection. In all of 2022 there were 248 thousand, and in 2021, 133 thousand.

“The number of migrants who have crossed the jungle is equivalent to more than 11 percent of Panama’s population. This is an unprecedented crisis to which not enough global or regional attention has been directed; Safe routes have not been guaranteed for migrants, nor sufficient resources for the organizations that care for them,” says Luis Eguiluz, general coordinator in Colombia and Panama of MSF (Doctors Without Borders).

Inattention route

During 2023, MSF has traveled the main migrant transit routes through Colombia. “What we have seen and heard from them is that those who travel through the south of the continent are exposed to a situation of extreme vulnerability: hunger, absence of accommodation and water sources, excessive charges, misinformation and scams, xenophobia and physical, psychological and sexual violence. All this begins long before the migrants reach the Darién jungle, although that is where it becomes evident,” says Eguiluz.

One of the neglected routes in Colombia begins at the Rumichaca bridge, which connects Tulcán (Ecuador) with Ipiales (Colombia), where Keiber and his family entered.

There, MSF also learned about the case of the families of Friangerlin and Yucleisy, two Venezuelan women. They walked exhausted, wrapped in blankets and with their skin and lips broken by the cold and altitude. Frangerlin, pregnant, was dragging a market cart from which the feet of an exhausted sleeping child could be seen wobbling. They had been traveling for four weeks. The two of them, with their husbands and four children, were returning to Venezuela. Yucleisy would pick up her other children and then go out together to the Darien; Friangerlin still wasn’t sure. “I’m tired of migrating,” she said.

“Leaving Guayaquil, we were threatened by a group of men whom they call “the fans.” They told us that if we didn’t pay them, they were going to take our babies, but our partners rebelled and told them that they had to kill us to take our things or our babies,” Yucleisy said.

The stories of violent events in the south of the continent They are a constant. “From Peru I took a bus that took me to Huaquillas (a city in Ecuador on the border with Peru). There some men took 10 migrants and stole all our money, they made the women undress, they also took our phones and said that if we spoke, they would kill us. They carried knives and guns,” said David Fuentes, a Colombian-Venezuelan migrant who worked in Peru as a street vendor.

“In Peru we were going to get on a tractor trailer (double trailer truck) and a man who was on it tried to hurt us with a knife. Then in Ecuador we were sleeping in a park and a police officer woke us up with pepper spray to get us to get up from there,” said Luis Jesús Wilches, also Venezuelan.

Like them, hundreds of Venezuelans and Haitians enter the south of Colombia every day on their second migration, migrants from the south of the continent such as Ecuadorians and Peruvians, and people from places as far away as China, India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cameroon and Burkina Faso that land in Ecuador or Brazil and then continue the route by land.

“According to testimonies from migrants with fewer economic resources, on the route through Ecuador they only find support in two cities: Ibarra and Tulcán, very close to Colombia. Then, in Ipiales, local organizations with international funds have some shelters where migrants can access a shower, lodging for one night and three courses of food, but then they must leave,” explains Luis Eguiluz.

Given the lack of attention and resources, only 2.2 percent of migrants can access these centers; More than 73 percent of families must sleep on the street or in public parks and 75 percent do not have sufficient access to drinking water, as recently verified by the Colombian Attorney General’s Office. In more than 1,200 kilometers, from Nariño to Antioquia, there is almost no aid for the population in transit.

Keiber says that, in Medellín, the main city of Antioquia, he, his wife and children had to sleep two nights on the floor of a toll booth, covered by a sheet. “We decided to take a cement factory to Santafé de Antioquia, an unforgettable town with very friendly people. A man saw us waiting and gave us 50 thousand pesos (12 USD) to eat. Then we took tractor-trailers to Turbo,” he recalls.

and then it came the Darién, a jungle of 5,000 square kilometers, natural border between Colombia and Panama. There, in addition to the geographical risks, migrants are exposed to all types of harassment by criminals: attacks, robberies, kidnappings and sexual violence. “Darién is the worst thing I have had to experience in my life, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. We walked for five days so we came with the children. We went over too many cliffs. At a waterfall, after we passed, a man died. We have all our fingers peeled with bloody sores,” Keiber explained while her 1 and 2-year-old children cried.

“They are found dead, pregnant women are found floating dead. A man who came in my group had a seizure, died and they had to abandon him. He is very strong. There is a lot of robbery in that jungle, they kidnap, they are charging 100 dollars per person and the woman who does not pay is raped,” said Emilady Rodríguez, also a Venezuelan migrant, recently arrived in Panama, with her daughters who are 7 and 10 years old.

“Although there are humanitarian organizations focused on Necoclí and Turbo, in Colombia, and in the Temporary Migration Reception Stations (ETRM) established by the Panamanian government on its side of the Darién, the response is not enough to cover the needs,” says Luis Eguiluz. Given this, MSF urges the governments of countries in transit to the United States to coordinate efforts to guarantee safe routes and access to basic services for the population on the move. The humanitarian crisis in Darien requires global responses.

Since the end of April 2021, MSF has been providing medical care to the population in transit arriving in Panama. Currently, MSF has service points in the two ETRMs of Lajas Blancas and San Vicente, and in the indigenous community of Bajo Chiquito. There, from January to October 2023, MSF carried out 51,500 medical and nursing consultations, including prenatal and postnatal. 18,000 consultations were for children under 15 years of age and 888 for pregnant women. In addition, MSF provided 2,400 mental health consultations and attended to 397 cases of sexual violence, about which it recently launched an alert.