Panama expects a surge in the number of people making the perilous trek this year
The government of Panama is raising the alarm about the surging number of migrants from South America who are crossing from Colombia through the hostile swamps and jungle of the Darien nature preserve. Large numbers of Haitians and Chinese were among the tens of thousands headed for the US just this year.
According to official government figures, in just the first two months of 2023, almost 50,0000 people crossed into Panama via the so-called Darien Gap, five times the number recorded the same time last year. A total of 248,284 migrants were recorded in 2022. If the trend continues this year, the Panamanian government expects as many as 400,000, Foreign Minister Janaina Tewaney said in an interview on Saturday.
Panama has launched a TikTok campaign to educate the potential migrants about the horrors of the Darien, in order to encourage them to take safer routes, according to the Financial Times.
"They don't tell you, you are going to cross the Darien, which is a hostile jungle," said Tewaney. "They tell you, 'It will take a day to go across and I'll leave you here'... There are a lot of people who die."
The minister was also concerned about the environmental damage to the nature preserve, which is "the most sacred and most protected ancestral area" for the Embera, Guna and Wounaan indigenous peoples.
Tewaney, whose parents emigrated from India, wants "more organized migration" and US help to address the "lack of opportunities" in the countries migrants come from. One of those is Haiti, which is experiencing continued political and social turmoil in the aftermath of the president's assassination. Haitians account for over a third of Darien crossings this year, Tewaney said.
Almost 2,200 Chinese migrants also arrived through the jungle in January and February, more than in all of 2022. Panamanian officials say they fly into Ecuador, which does not require visas, and then make their way through Colombia.
Panama spent $50 million last year sheltering and feeding the migrants and is "working closely" with the US to manage the border, Tewaney said. Colombia is a major US ally in the region, however, so it is unclear why Washington is not working with Bogota to secure the border.
The US border with Mexico saw almost 2.4 million apprehensions in the fiscal year 2022. President Joe Biden's administration has refused to describe the situation as a crisis and insists the border is safe and secure. Vice President Kamala Harris was tasked with working on "root causes" of the migration crisis in March 2021.