The Darien Gap is a perilous place: a jungle filled with vipers and anacondas, deadly spiders, bandits, and flash floods and lacking any roads or even trails. It's also the sole overland path from South America into Central America, a 66-mile run of land between Colombia and Panama. As Alicia Chen writes for the Guardian, stories of Haitians, Venezuelans, and Cubans trying to traverse it have been well established, but Chen's own look at the migrants passing through zeroes in on a less-discussed and small but growing population: Chinese citizens trying to enter the US. Panamanian government data logged 400 Chinese citizens making the journey in the first half of 2022; in January 2023, that number was a record 913.
Chen credits a "combination of draconian COVID lockdowns and Xi Jinping's increasingly repressive rule" for the surge, and reports that the recent loosening of pandemic-related border controls have contributed, giving those who have wanted to leave more opportunity. Word of how to do so has been spreading on social media and in groups slugged with names like "United States DIY." Chen reports the easiest path to the jungle is generally Istanbul to Ecuador, which doesn't require visas of Chinese citizens, then on to Colombia via bus.
One of the Chinese men who spoke to Chen is a 28-year-old who describes rains so heavy he lost his tent but managed to survive after two other men allowed him to share theirs. "I was so tired, hungry, and cold. I almost lost my mind," he says. While the number of Chinese crossers are growing, so is the overall number: The AP reports almost 250,000 migrants crossed the Darien Gap in 2022, more than half of them Venezuelan; the 2021 count was 133,000 people. One Panamanian official describes the perils: "Many have lost their lives or gone missing, while others come out of it with significant health issues, both physical and mental, to which we and our partners are responding."
Survivors share grim tales. Al Jazeera spoke with a Venezuelan man who crossed with his wife and 2-year-old over 10 days last November, noting, "At one point in the jungle, he had been tumbling down a near-vertical hill of mud and had frantically grabbed what he thought was a tree root—but which turned out to be a hand belonging to a human corpse." Vice reporter Emily Green visited Darien Gap migrant camps in January and put the count of new arrivals at 800 per day. If that pace keeps up, the number could near 300,000 this year. Vice offers this bold context: "More migrants now cross the Darien Gap than the Mediterranean Sea." (Read more migrants stories.)