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11 September 2023 - Story

Passing Through the Darien Gap: Can Children Learn Along the Migration Route?

By Paula Smits

LAC Regional Evidence & Learning Manager

A friendly smile and greeting made their eyes lit up for just a moment. You could read the exhaustion and pain from their faces. But they had made it! Their journey through the Darien Gap, the +/- 115-kilometer-long mountainous stretch of inhospitable jungle connecting the Colombia-Panama border, was completed[1]. But the cost had been high. If they were among the lucky ones, a small backpack, some money, a set of clothes, and some type of shoes would be all they would still possess, apart from the memories of what they had experienced and seen during those days in the jungle. Those less fortunate would have lost more, if not all, both physically and emotionally.

While standing there at that arrival point in the Temporary Migrant Reception Stations (ETRM) of Lajas Blancas, several migrants came to us to ask for help; medical attention, clothes, or information on where to go next. One couple recognized the logo of Save the Children on our shirts and proudly mentioned they had been attended by Save the Children Colombia in Arauca. They seemed relieved to see us there again. Most migrants, however, just kept walking, faces down to choose their steps well. They were exhausted, and with only one thing on their mind; getting on the next bus to continue their journey towards Northern America. What they had just gone through while crossing the Darien Gap seemed to be just stored in their memory as a necessary evil to reach their dream. But appearances deceive.

Since January, more than 250,000 migrants from all over the world have crossed the Darien – an average of 1,700 people per day, already surpassing the overall figure of last year.[2] Most of them are Venezuelans (55%), followed by Ecuadorians (14%) and Haitians (13.5%). If the incremental surge in movement continues, we could see half a million migrants crossing the Darién by the end of 2023, nearly twice as many as last year.

The impact of what these migrants have been through is hard to describe on paper. But looking into their eyes, you can feel their pain. Since the beginning of the rainy season, migrants report increasing difficulties crossing the jungle, including incidents of drowning, flooding, and landslides. Moreover, 1 in 3 migrants report experiencing theft, scams, or fraud during their journey through the Darien, while 1 in 5 migrants report being victim of threats, intimidation, and attacks.[3] And that is not all. Seeing death bodies, being afraid of getting lost, and caring for children or other dependents are also among the top five situations that affect migrants the most while crossing the jungle.[4] The physical, but especially mental impact of this journey will stay with them for the rest of their lives. 

And not just with the adults migrates. Of those 250,000 migrants that have crossed the Darien this year alone, 21% are children and adolescents under the age of 18.[5] That means that for every 5 adults, 1 child crosses the Darien. And we saw these children, of all ages, while visiting the ETRMs of Lajas Blancas and San Vicente. Young babies in their mothers’ arms, a 4-year-old girl with cancer on her father’s back, and many, many others walking (often bear feet and without clothes) next to their parent(s). As several NGO colleagues mentioned; “these children follow their parents’ dreams. The only thing they want is to sleep in their own bed again.”

The objective of our mission was among others to verify the dynamics and processes of service provision for migrants at the ETRMs and get a better understanding on the way information is (effectively or not) transferred to the migrant population. These findings will serve as concrete input for the recently started regional project titled “Ruta Educativa” [6] funded by ECHO. This project focuses on reducing barriers to education for children, adolescents, and families in transit along the Central American migratory route.

Regarding the service provision, while visiting the ETRMs, we observed the many challenges faced by the actors present. Not just because the number of migrants significantly surpasses the capacity of the ETRMs and that of those who provide essential services, but also because of a lack of institutional presence of the national authorities. As one partner mentioned: “Lajas Blancas represents ‘survival’”.

For our second objective, one of the things we wanted to comprehend in more depth is how we successfully can inform migrant parents and caregivers about the importance of, and en route offer of education services, taking into account the particular context of Darien – for most the starting point of their journey through Central America – and the specific circumstances in which migrants arrive at the ETRMs. Because, as the father of the 4-year-old cancer patient clearly showed us when we told him the medical service post was right next-door but he could not see it, even if a parent or caregiver actively looks for a specific service, their exhaustion, stress, and mental state often don’t allow them to see what is right in front of them. So how do we inform migrant parents and caregivers in transit of rights and services they can access, if they don’t necessarily look for them? How do we sensitize them about the importance of education for their children while in transit when their only priority is to continue their journey? And how do we encourage parents and caregivers to support their children’s right to education while on the move?   

These are not easy questions to answer, and testing and iteration will be key in finding solutions that will actually work. However, based on previously collected evidence, and on our (in)formal conversations and observations during our visit to Darien, we feel confident that we are steps closer to finding these answers. Answers specifically for the context of Darien to be precise. Since one thing became abundantly clear during our vi0sit; as people’s main goal is to continue their journey as fast as possible, hence, successfully encouraging parents and caregivers in transit to access education services should by tied to fulfilling that primary objective. And since reaching this objective will depend on migrants’ changing needs and circumstances as they continue their journey up north, so should we ensure our strategies change with them. Hence ... To be continued!


Metetí, Darien, July 2023

Paula Smits, Regional Evidence & Learning Manager, LAC Regional Office

Rocio Dutary, Regional Migration and Displacement Policy and Advocacy Advisor, LAC Regional Office

Sussana Urbano, Regional Education in Emergencies Advisor, LAC Regional Office

[1] This journey takes between 2 to 15 days, with 5 days being the average (UNHCR (June 2023), Mixed Movements Official Data, Darien Province, Panama-Colombia Border

[2] Migración Panama (July 2023), Transito Irregular por Darien 2023. In 2022, 248,000 migrant crossed the Darien Gap (Migración Panama (Dec 2022), Transito Irregular por Darien 2022

[4] Idem.

[5] Migración Panama (July 2023), Transito Irregular por Darien 2023

[6] "Educational Route”, which is a component of a broader project titled “From Mexico's Borders to Central America's Transit Routes: Strengthening Protection and Aid for Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Migrants through Integrated Response, education in emergencies and Streamlined Coordination”. This project is implemented in Mexico with funds from ECHO.