Migrants at the Panamanian Darien
Photographer: Bienvenido Velasco
Every week, hundreds of migrants arrive on small boats to Penita, a small indigenous village in the Darien Gap on the Panamanian side of the border with Colombia, as they make their way along a perilous route towards North America.
The waters are unsettled at times because of the heavy rain typical of this time of the year, but that does not deter the men, women and children migrating from the Caribbean, Asia and Africa, for whom Penita becomes their temporary home and the Chucunaque river a place to bathe and do the laundry. Joseph Casseus, 40, comes from Haiti and is traveling with his 39-year-old pregnant wife. "We have been lucky, I myself have seen dead people here," he said. After years living in Brazil, the couple decided to try and start a new life in the US. "We have no family here," said Casseus, dismissing the possibility of staying in Panama. According to National Border Service (Senafront), over 11,100 migrants have crossed into Panama so far in 2019.
About 1,500 people from Cuba, Haiti, Africa and Asia are living in a humanitarian camp in Penita, while another 1,500 are in Bajo Chiquito, a camp on the other side of the river. Getting from Bajo Chiquito to Penita by boat costs around 25 US dollars. About a month ago, six migrants who were resting on the banks of the Chucunaque died after they were swept away, witnesses said. Lisandra Farray Rodriguez, 30, from Cuba and five months pregnant, spent about a month in the jungle. She said she had requested to stay in Panama as a refugee. "I don’t have an American dream, I just want to stay in a country where my rights are respected, where I can live like a human being.” According to Gonzalo Medina, the International Organization for Migration's (IMO) program coordinator for Panama, migration in the area is now a constant phenomenon. In 2006, only 79 people journeyed through the Darien, and that number in 2012 rose to 1,777.
In 2015 it was up to almost 29,289 and by 2016 it stood at 30,055. The majority of these people were Cubans looking to reach the US, before the historic thawing of relations between the two countries, which brought an end to an exceptional immigration policy that granted Cubans automatic residency in the States. According to Senafront, 11,103 migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nepal, India and Bangladesh have arrived to the Darien Gap so far in 2019, including over 400 children. The IOM has identified a greater number of families with children traveling across the Darien, mostly in groups, without the help of traffickers or smugglers. But the routes the migrants use are the same as those used by drug traffickers and organized crime networks, according to Medina. Migration has transformed Penita into a hub of activity, with food and goods being transported along the river, and street vendors popping up to sell clothes, shoes, diapers, SIM cards and even wireless routers.