The Venezuelan exodus continues. For more than 10 years, Venezuela has been engulfed in a disastrous economic crisis that has driven more than 7.7 million Venezuelans to leave their homeland. So far, most of these migrants have been hosted in other South American countries (Colombia has received nearly 3 million, Peru over 1.5 million). Now this trend seems to be shifting, as more and more migrants choose to head north towards Central and North America. Critically, such a journey often involves crossing the dreaded “Darien Gap”, a perilous stretch of jungle-covered land lying between Colombia and Panama.
According to an analysis published in September 2023 by the Platform “R4V” (formed in 2018 by UN agencies to respond to the Venezuelan crisis, and involving a variety of international and regional humanitarian organizations), in the first ten months of 2022, an increasing number of migrants headed north to the United States. However, in late 2022, this number fell sharply following the announcement by the U.S. Government of a new immigration policy for Venezuelans, which included expulsion measures for irregular migrants. In 2023, partly due to changes in that policy, the number of arrivals to Panama via the Darién surged again, reaching a record-breaking total of 333,700 individuals (more than 60 percent of them Venezuelans). This is more than three times the number of people who made the crossing in the same time frame in 2022, an event which, as the report highlights, has had a “historic impact on host countries’ capacities”.
The same document also describes some of the challenges faced by migrants when crossing the Darién Gap. It is a dangerous journey through mountainous areas covered with thick forests and prone to flooding. The risk of injuries is high, but the dangers are not solely natural: according to the report, migrants are also exposed to injuries such as stabbings and gunshot wounds, human trafficking, and sexual violence. In 2022, 172 cases of sexual violence were found to have occurred in the Darién, as reported by Médecins Sans Frontières.
The increasing number of people choosing to cross the Darién jungle has also fueled the growth of a criminal network profiting from the migrants. There are companies that offer boat transportation between various points in the jungle, guides who accompany migrants along the route, and even porters carrying food and other equipment. With fees per person ranging from tens to hundreds of dollars (depending on the service), the result is a multimillion-dollar business that involves members of organized crime as well as local politicians and leaders.
To make matters even worse, the amount of funding available to R4V partners to tackle the Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis is shrinking. The September 2023 analysis reads that “In the first half of this year, in comparison to previous years, the 228 R4V partners have been severely impacted by grave funding shortages”. As of Oct. 27, the annual response plan for 2023 developed by the platform was barely 16 percent funded. In comparison, the plan for 2022 was 37.3 percent funded, while funding for the 2021 plan reached 41 percent. According to UN data, funds mainly come from governments (primarily the United States, which contributed approximately 80 percent of the funds in 2022), and from multilateral organizations, most notably the European Union. The latest figures shows that several governments have donated significantly less in 2023 compared to what they did in 2022. As the R4V analysis highlights, this makes it difficult to reach all those in need, leaving millions of refugees and migrants without support to secure their well-being, stabilize and regularize their situations, as well as access health, shelter, education, hygiene, transportation, employment, food and protection assistance. In September 2023, the International Organization for Migration reported that there were over 4 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees struggling to meet basic needs across the Americas. Eduardo Stein, the Joint Representative of IOM and UNHCR for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela, has called for increased international support to address the crisis and improve the living conditions of migrants.
This is particularly important in the case of migrants crossing the Darién region. According to another study by the Mixed Migration Centre, 57 percent of refugees and migrants surveyed between July and September 2022 reported that the Darién region in Panama was the location where they most needed assistance and did not receive it, with food and water being the most often reported unmet necessities. The situation is further aggravated by the fact that, as reported by UNICEF, a large number of the migrants are children, many of them unaccompanied and many under the age of 5.
[Photo by Milenioscuro, via Wikimedia Commons]
Nicolò Marini has graduated in International Relations from the University of Roma Tre. He is a former journalist covering local and national news in Rome, now an English teacher with a passion for pursuing a career in international affairs. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.