The majority of those who took Panama’s dangerous jungle route in hopes of reaching North America are Haitians, the IOM says.
More than 91,300 migrants – most of them Haitians – have migrated through Panama’s dangerous Darien Gap jungle so far this year in hopes of reaching North America, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Friday.
Referring to statistics from Panamanian migration authorities, the IOM said 56,600 Haitian migrants had crossed the Darien Hole, one of the most dangerous routes in Latin America, between January and September this year. Many had children with them.
In total, nine months of the year triple the previous record for the whole of 2016, with 30,000 migrants taking the route, the IOM said.
“Border closures and economic contractions due to the COVID-19 pandemic led to an increase in irregular migration,” Santiago Paz, head of the IOM mission in Panama, said in a statement on the figures.
“Caribbean and extra-regional migrants are making the transition under extremely vulnerable conditions and are at risk along their migration route, particularly at the crossing of the Darien Gorge on the border between Panama and Colombia,” Paz said.
The announcement comes as the United States maintains an almost total border closure for those seeking asylum at its borders, and as Mexico and other countries in Central America have blocked people trying to get through their territories on their way to the United States.
Darien Gap, a 575,000-acre stretch of jungle on the Panama-Colombian border, is controlled by armed gangs. Smugglers usually guide small groups through the route, but many are robbed, assaulted or raped along the way, and dozens have been killed alone this year.
Panama said this week that more than 50 migrants died while crossing the jungle pass until now in 2021. But officials said the number is anything but guaranteed to be below the actual death toll for those making the trip.
In recent years, an average of 20 to 30 corpses have been recovered annually, but observers said the death toll this year reflects an increase in migration.
Experts have said that many of the deaths are due to natural causes, such as heart attacks or falls. Drownings and snake bites are also common. But others are assaulted and killed by armed gangs.
The Darien Gap route has been under new scrutiny in recent weeks after nearly 15,000 people, mostly Haitians, camped under a bridge in southern Texas last month in hopes of seeking asylum in the United States.
Many left Haiti many years ago and had lived in Brazil or Chile and took the journey to the U.S. border with Mexico for food after crossing the Darien hole on their way north.
The Biden administration has faced widespread criticism for deporting thousands of Haitian asylum seekers to Haiti, facing deadly gang violence, political instability and the recent earthquake.
Giuseppe Loprete, Head of the IOM Mission in Haiti, said Friday that the United States had sent more than 7,500 people back to Haiti to date.
On Thursday, rights groups filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, calling on the international body to demand that the United States stop using a public health directive to immediately expel most asylum seekers arriving at the border.
The former U.S. envoy to Haiti, who resigned after the Biden administration’s treatment of Haitian asylum seekers, told U.S. lawmakers this week that deportations would make the crisis in the Caribbean nation worse.