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Panama sees surge in migrants crossing perilous Darien Gap

AP  |  Penitas 

lay on a in a warehouse-turned-shelter on a hot, sticky afternoon with her 20-month-old son, Wesly, in her arms, the boy coughing and wailing after suffering from for days.

Originally from Haiti, they recently appeared in this tiny Panamanian village after a six-day hike through the jungle along the Colombian border, where armed robbers stole her husband's backpack containing the $1,000 that he had saved from two years working in The thieves raped three women in their group.

"The way was very dangerous," said Felizor, 26. "I thought my son was going to be lost. I saw scenes of death."

Panamanian authorities are struggling to contend with a spike in the number of migrants passing through what is known as the Darien Gap, a roadless, lawless region of tropical isthmus that is one of the most dangerous stretches for people heading north from South America, usually toward the or

It's the biggest migratory crisis has faced since 2015-2016, when about 60,000 people crossed the Darien Gap, an exodus that prompted governments to temporarily close borders in Panama, and

According to the National Border Service of Panama, or Senafront, 7,316 migrants came through the Gap this year as of April 18. Such traffic tends to fall off during the imminent rainy season, but the numbers are still on pace to well exceed the 9,678 who made the passage last year and potentially rival 2015-2016.

In interviews, the migrants say they are fleeing poverty, misery, discrimination, political conflicts, war and extremist violence.

"I think what is happening at the Colombian-Panamanian border is a reflection of what is happening on an international level. ... It is a search for hope, for opportunities, for well-being, for a vital minimum that is not being provided by the state where they come from," said Johanna Fernanda Navas, a on migration and human rights at the Catholic University of

Most in the surge in are migrants from or Cuba, with smaller numbers coming from African nations such as and Congo, plus the South Asian countries of India, and

Cubans have for years flown to to begin their journey, though recently many have begun to opt for abbreviated routes beginning in or Haitians came to years ago following their country's disastrous 2010 earthquake, more recently deciding to move on when work dried up.

African and Asian migrants tend to arrive by boat or air in Brazil, crossing the Amazon to and turning north through to Colombia, where they hire smugglers to shepherd them through the Gap.

"Our jungle is a bad jungle. ... That journey is very dangerous (with) unscrupulous people, 'coyotes,' who guide them through the jungle and abandon them to fate," said Jos Samaniego, for Senafront in the town of Meteti, one of the last outposts along the Pan-before it ends on this side of the Darien Gap.

The Gap's perils are numerous. Tales are common of robberies and sexual assault by marauding bands of armed Colombians and Panamanians, and encounters with the drug trafficking "mules" who walk the same paths as the migrants.

"The jungle aspect of it was so terrible because it was the survival of the fittest, you understand?" said Afolabi Ojo, who fled his home in northern after the extremist group killed his entire family.

"The environment was so deadly. You can imagine somebody coming from the bush, from the forest."

Darien's rivers can rise suddenly and furiously, and in recent weeks at least 10 migrants were reportedly swept to their deaths. Samaniego said the toll could be higher, but there is no way of knowing given the remote and unforgiving nature of the area.

A Congolese man who gave his name as just Kerlo said a person traveling in his small party drowned. "We could not even bury him because the current took him away," the man said through tears, pointing at the river.

The International Organization for Migration's Panama branch says migrants who traverse the often arrive "in very bad shape." Senafront says the most common maladies are diarrhea, vomiting, skin inflammation, foot mold and

Emerging from the Gap, most migrants pass through the hamlets of Bajo Chiquito or Canaan Membrillo before making their way by foot or by boat along the to Penitas.

In normal times, Penitas is an indigenous village with fewer than 200 inhabitants who ply the river in narrow wooden skiffs. They have no running water, cellphone coverage, medical clinic or

These days Penitas is overwhelmed by migrants, who sleep on bunk beds and floor mats in the or outside in tents. They wash clothes in the muddy waters of the Chucunaque, hang things to dry on clothes lines and chain link fencing and relieve themselves in blue portable toilets set up outside the shelter.

Samaniego estimated on a recent day that there were more than 1,500 migrants at the Penitas camp, which was planned to hold only 100 to 200 and just a few months ago was housing around 80 or 90 on a given day.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Thu, May 16 2019. 16:26 IST