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Tracing a Perilous Journey

Crossing the Darien Gap with U.S.-bound migrants

U.S.-bound migrants crossing the Colombian border with Panama face a harrowing prospect.

It’s illegal to cross without a border, and smugglers’ boats are expensive, so most migrants’ only choice is to find clandestine routes through the Darien Gap, an unforgiving jungle where they are left without guides, with little or no food to find along the way, and under the constant threat of robbery. And yet they do it anyway.

“Whether you make it migration legal or illegal, however dangerous you make it, migrants, when they are forced out of their countries, they are going to do whatever it takes to reach safer ground,” said Nadja Drost, one of two journalists who followed the journey of dozens of migrants to tell the story of what they went through to reach the United States. 

Drost and Bruno Federico, an Italian filmmaker and journalist, spoke to a virtual Duke Audience February 24, hosted by Piotr Plewa, a visiting research scholar at Duke who specializes in international migration.

The journalists were based in Bogota, Colombia, when they noticed an increase of international migrants transiting through Colombia, a country that had, until then, mostly only received migrants from neighboring Venezuela.

“We had always known this route existed, but it was just a trickle,” Drost said. The estimates were just a few hundred people going through the Darien Gap every year. But all of a sudden, they started hearing stories of people coming from all over the world. 

Drost and Federico joined the route with a crew of eight people and met different groups of migrants who had been on journeys of years that started in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cameroon, Haiti.  Supported by the Pulitzer Center, the journalists produced three reports for PBS NewsHour: “Extra-Continental Migration: The Longest Journey to America.

“This is not a natural disaster. It’s a tragedy produced by policies,” said Federico “The migrants would never do this path if they could choose.” 

Watch the full webinar here. The event was produced by the Duke Center for International and Global Studies (DUCIGS), the Duke Center for International Development (DCID), the Duke Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS), and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke (CDS.) 

Here are excerpts:


Nadja Drost 

“We started noticing that the frequency of the travel through Darien Gap really started picking up probably about three or four years ago. We decided that we wanted to take a look at this kind of growing phenomenon of migration through the Darien gap to understand what migrants were going through to make this journey not only from a physical perspective but also what were the policies that they were fighting up against that was impacting their journey. That's why we decided to expand our look and not just cover what they were going through in the Darien gap, but then how they were basically butting up against the ripple effects of US immigration border enforcement as it moved southward.”


Piotr Plewa

“A unique feature of Panamanian migration system is its alleged ability to manage migration flows effectively. A part of the operation is done in collaboration with the US authorities who want to know who is coming towards the United States.  Migrants who enter from Colombia to Panama are received in one of the 3 reception centers set up by Panamanian migration authorities in the south of the country.  As a part of the screening migrants undergo medical and security checks.  The rising number of migrants and more recently COVID-19 related border closures precipitated housing and other reception resources shortages.  This has in turn led to anxiety among migrants.”


Bruno Federico

“There is a possibility of transit by the sea but it is far more expensive. This area is heavily controlled by coastguards to prevent narcotraffic smuggling.”

Nadja Drost 

“We never saw any evidence of the smuggling route being able to avoid the Darien gap entirely. What I think is more common is that there are smugglers who take migrants in the nighttime to cross the border into Panama, but then they literally dump them on a beach in the Darien gap and they still have to walk through the rest of it. The frequency of that really depends on shifting internal policies. For example, Colombia, some years it considers the transit of migrants illegal. Sometimes it gives them a permit to transit for 30 days. And so that also really impacts whether migrants have to do a part of the journey illegally or not.”


Nadja Drost 

“There is a real focus on trying to prevent migration from happening at all by prosecuting the smugglers themselves. There is also a discourse about the concern for the migrants’ wellbeing and that concern translating into trying to protect them by cutting out the smugglers from the equation. What we observed is human traffickers were actually a very important and essential part of the survival of a lot of migrants in making this journey successful.”

Bruno Federico

“I feel that the same thing I found in different countries like in Europe, Mexico, etc. The discourse by conservative politicians is that we want to stop migration because migrants are terrible people. The discourse from liberals is that we want to save the migrants from the human traffickers. These speeches are just a game of words because the policies at the end, are normally the same.”


Nadja Drost 

“On the Panamanian side, the reception really varies. Different communities are impacted at different times. There have been communities that have found themselves, suddenly, the receptor of hundreds and hundreds of Cuban migrants for three months at one point. The town began to feel quite hostile towards them because there are so few resources in the first place for the permanent inhabitants. The two settlements that we ended up walking to, were quite surprising at how warmly receptive locals were of the migrants. I think it's for two reasons. One is, they are acutely aware of the dangers of walking through the region. They can physically see the depth of suffering that people have gone through. But for some of these towns. it's been a little bit of an economic boom in the sense that, when migrants are staying there, they end up buying food, water at the local stores and they end up staying in people's homes for a couple dollars a night. So, it really helps to kind of boost the local economy. The tensions arise when those limited resources are extra stressed.”


Bruno Federico

“We were always very clear in our conversation that they can stay with us but they are not obliged to be filmed.

Nadja Drost 

“The ethical decisions that we had to face on a daily basis were far more challenging than the physical challenges of doing the trip.

“Because, as journalists, we were cognizant that our principal objective and an obligation is to bear witness, and we need to do that in such a way that doesn't intervene with the story. That being said, we were coming across people who were very badly injured, people who hadn't eaten food in in days. pregnant women and children. There was no relief for days. This was a situation where it was actually life or death for a lot of people with no relief available. So, we tried to approach a lot of these situations with a combination of basically trying to maintain our journalistic integrity with humanity.”


Piotr Plewa

“There aren’t really good statistics because of the illicit nature of the of the movement. The number of registered migrants crossing this border has increased from some 500 in 2010 to over 30,000 in 2016. The flows of migrants declined with COVID 19 and with the border closures, but the migration didn't stop altogether: 6,000 crossed the border in 2020 and 1,000 in January of 2021 alone.”