Refugee camps in the Darien jungle of Panama

A group of South Asian migrants making their way to a refugee camp in the Darien jungle of Panama.

In the Darien jungle of eastern Panama along the Colombian border, we have been developing a relationship with a ministry that equips indigenous missionaries with valuable skills that include how to install off-grid sanitation, water access/filtration systems, and other appropriate engineering know-how. Having the ability to conduct such projects can greatly increase the chance of a missionary being granted access to communities that may otherwise remain off-limits to outsiders. For our friends in this ministry it has become a fantastic way to build relationships not only in remote tribal communities, but also with Panamanian authorities that owing to its remoteness and location in this restive border region with Colombia, is rife with all manner of violent criminal activity pertaining to the prolific drugs trade and illicit trafficking of just about anything else.

As many of the community enhancing projects involve the use of mapping and GPS, I have been looking to lend expertise towards this work. Alan, the director of this ministry, has recently been coordinating with the Panamanian border patrol, SENAFRONT, to help them install water access and sanitation systems within several indigenous communities that are currently providing temporary shelter for hundreds of foreign migrants at a time. Arriving here from around the world, the migrants hope to reach the USA. They filter into camps such as these, filthy, tired and hungry, exhibiting signs of trauma over what they experienced to get here. Once processed by SENAFRONT they are sent onward through Panama to the Costa Rica border once cleared. This can days or weeks. These people had just traversed the border from Colombia via the infamous Darien Gap. This is no mere border crossing. It is an arduous journey considered among the most treacherous in the world. They did it in hopes of eventually reaching the USA – and a better life for themselves and their families. Walking among them we encountered Spanish-speaking Cubans and Venezuelans with whom we could converse, and many others speaking French or other languages indigenous to places like Bangladesh, Somalia and the Middle East. We heard some people speaking English who turned out to be a group from the English-speaking region of the west African country of Cameroon. Cameroon is divided linguistically between English and French, the former heavily persecuted by the latter. As we chatted and prayed with them (they were professing Christians), we were shocked by their horrific accounting of a weeks-long journey through the jungle, rife with death, disease, and abuses at the hands of unscrupulous smugglers (known as ‘coyotes’). Adding to this, locals along the way have established an entire industry offering basic ‘services’ at exorbitant rates, draining the migrants of what resources they might be in possession of. While many have arrived here to escape the devastation and ravages of conflicts in their home counties; others have simply bought into a dream of a better economic future for them and their families. It is hard to say how many will eventually reach their destination. Equally hard to determine is how many of them would consider a new life in a foreign land worth the sacrifice required to get there.

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