Record migrant surge crosses the Darién jungle in 2023

By Martin Mowforth

14 May 2024

Key words: migration; Darién crossing; Panama; President elect Mulino; repatriation.

A January 2024 AFP (Agence France Presse) report relates that over 520,000 migrants crossed the Darién jungle zone of Panamá during 2023. Of these, Panamá’s Ministry of Public Security reported that 120,000 were minors. This is more than double the next highest rate of the passage of Darién migrants which was in 2022.

On its X social network account, the Ministry said that it takes migrants between three and six days to cross the natural border between Colombia and Panamá which is 266 km long and covers 575,000 hectares of land. For humans, the area is one of the most inhospitable on the planet and migrants face many natural dangers as well as exploitation by criminal gangs. In November 2023, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it had treated more than 400 cases of migrants who were victims of sexual assault, 97 per cent of them women, some of them girls. Despite the dangers, crossing the Darién remains an attractive route, and already this year (by the end of April, 147,000 migrants had entered Panama overland from Colombia.

The Ministry also gave details of the origins of the migrants. The greatest number of nationals crossing the Darién are from Venezuela who accounted for around 60 per cent of the total. They were followed by Ecuadorians, Haitians and Chinese with smaller numbers from Vietnam, Afghanistan and numerous African nations.

The situation has forced the Panamanian government and some international organisations to establish migrant care centres at various points in the country. In recognition of the fact that most of the migrants are trying to reach the United States of America, the Panamanian government’s initial response to this phenomenon was to arrange buses to transport the migrants through the country to its border with Costa Rica.

More recently, however, the government has been taking an increasingly hard line in its treatment of migrants who entered the country irregularly. President elect José Raúl Mulino (who takes over the presidency on 1st July this year) has said he will try to shut down the Darién migration route.

Whether Mulino can effectively reduce the numbers passing through the Darién is uncertain. The large extent of the Darién has limited governmental presence and control. Giuseppe Loprete is the Chief of Mission in Panama of the United Nation’s International Organisation for Immigration and has pointed out that if the government manages to block the legal and well-trodden routes, “migrants run the risk of turning to criminal networks, traffickers and dangerous routes.” One such alternative route could be the dangerous sea route from Colombia to Panama.

Another possible policy option for Mulino would be to massively repatriate the migrants, but Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America says that “… in mathematical terms I don’t know how they hope to massively deport migrants. …. A daily plane, which would be extremely expensive, would only repatriate around ten per cent of the flow (about 1,000 to 1,200 per day). The United States only manages to do about 130 flights monthly in the entire world.”


  • AFP News Agency, 10 May 2024, Update,
  • Tico Times, 7 January 2024, ‘Record Migrant Surge Sees 120K Minors Enter Panama Jungle’, San José.
  • Alma Solís, 11 May 2024, ‘Panama’s next president says he’ll try to shut down one of the world’s busiest migration routes’, APNews.
  • Martin Mowforth, 27 November 2023, ‘Migration hits Panama and Costa Rica’,