Maybe you’ve seen a news report about people crossing the world’s deadliest jungle, or maybe you read our Colombia Country Director’s moving reflection on the courage of the people he’s seen as they prepare to cross the Darién Gap. However you’ve come to the question of “what’s happening in the Darién Gap?”, you’ve probably also felt a tug at your heartstrings for the people making the treacherous trip.

Though the Darién Gap has been a migrant route for decades, there’s been a recent surge in people crossing. In 2023, nearly half a million people crossed from Colombia into Panama. Prior to 2013, only a few thousand people crossed each year. In the last decade, the number of people making this challenging journey has almost doubled annually.

Experts predict that the number of people crossing will continue to increase in 2024. The reality is that we’re witnessing the effects of troubling global trend in the Darién Gap. Today, more than 110 million people have been forcibly displaced and are heading toward places of safety and stability. That number is higher than ever, and continues to grow.

Our team in Colombia responded with creativity, grace, and a generosity of spirit to this crisis. Though Medical Teams has worked in Colombia since 2019, we recently expanded our program to serve people migrating through the Darién Gap. Alongside our institutional partners, we’re providing loving care to people who are scared, exhausted, and often unprepared for the challenges that lie ahead.

Read on to find out more about what’s happening in the Darién Gap, and how our innovative programs are helping!

What is the Darién Gap?

The Darién Gap is a treacherous 60-mile stretch of jungle connecting Central and South America. The jungle covers the border between Colombia and Panama. Though a recent increase in people crossing the jungle has brought the area more attention, it’s been one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes for decades.

There is no infrastructure in the jungle: no roads, shelters, cell phone service, or assistance from governments or humanitarian agencies. People who cross the jungle often pay “guides” to help them make their way through, as there are multiple routes that change frequently.

Most people who cross the jungle start their journey from the port towns of Necoclí or Turbo in Colombia. They board a boat to ferry them across a bay, then enter the jungle. Most trips, entirely on foot except in limited exceptions, take anywhere between 5 to 15 days.

Arturo, one of our staff in Turbo, watches a boat carrying people into the Darién Gap cross the Gulf of Urabá. Photo by Lina Hernandez.

People crossing the Darién Gap face a variety of dangers, but one of the most threatening is the geography of the jungle itself. Regardless of route, people face a difficult trek over mountains, through valleys, and across rivers. People are only able to bring what they can carry. It’s difficult for people to pack in enough water, food, or supplies for the entire journey. Many resort to drinking river water — leading to illness or severe dehydration — or are exposed to the elements without shelter. Disease, injury, and infections are common.

The other danger people migrating face are from the gangs and criminals who operate in the jungle. Many threaten and rob migrants. Additionally, sexual violence is extremely prevalent. Passage through the Darién Gap has become a lucrative operation for the gangs and criminal groups that control access to it and are seeking to profit off of the suffering of others. They have a financial incentive to encourage more people to cross as they charge people for passage.

A Medical Teams truck carries supplies through Necoclí. Photo by Lina Hernandez.

What health issues are people facing?

Many people crossing the Darién Gap are dealing with chronic health conditions they haven’t been able to have treatment for in Venezuela, Colombia, or elsewhere. When health care costs rise exponentially, or people can’t access care, they’re forced to make difficult decisions to get help. People are often desperate to find treatment for chronic illnesses, cancer, diabetes, HIV, and other serious ailments.

In addition, respiratory and intestinal infections are common for people in transit. This is especially true for children. In the Darién Gap specifically, the health risks people face on the journey include dehydration, lacerations or other injuries, mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever and malaria, sexual violence, and even animal attacks.

What is Medical Teams doing to help?

Medical Teams has worked in Colombia since 2019, where our innovative community-led health care initiatives have helped people access life-saving health care. Our programs save lives, reduce malnutrition rates, and increase access to primary care and a variety of specialty services, including maternal, newborn, child, and mental health care. Our goal is to contribute to sustainable and effective health access and improvement, while working to integrate people into the formal health system in Colombia.

A mural in our humanitarian storefront, called No Estamos Solo or “we are not alone,” sharing messages of support between migrants. Photo by Lina Hernandez.

When the number of people crossing the Darién Gap dramatically increased, Medical Teams heard the call to expand our services into new regions. With the support of institutional funders, we initiated health programs for people settling in Colombia near the Darién Gap. Additionally, we launched short-term support to people departing by boat to reach the entrance of the Darién Gap. For example, in Turbo, Medical Teams offers health education and hygiene items to prevent and protect against injury and disease while in the jungle. These services are provided by caring Medical Teams staff through a humanitarian store on the wharf in Turbo that provides necessary items for free through a system of electronic vouchers.

For many of the people who are entering the Darién Gap from Turbo, Medical Teams is one of the few organizations offering support on their journey. We also work with other organizations in Necoclí where there is a much larger humanitarian response. Our humanitarian storefront also serves as a momentary respite for people who are often exhausted and scared. The store is called No Estamos Solos, which means “we are not alone.” There’s a dedicated space for kids to play and feel normal, at least for a little while. Families can also receive mental health support while at No Estamos Solos.

Elisander, a Medical Teams staff member, plays with a little boy while his parents receive health education in a moment of respite for the family. Photo by Lina Hernandez.

What is a humanitarian storefront?

Our humanitarian storefront is a place for educating and equipping people as they prepare to travel through the Darién Gap. It’s important to remember that many of the people we serve in Turbo, near the Darién Gap, are on much longer journeys across the continent. To that end, they may have few belongings or run out of necessary items — or the money to pay for them. One of the ways we live out our calling is to offer people the dignity of compassionate health care and the single-use health and hygiene supplies they need to care for themselves.

Samantha, a young girl traveling with her parents, carries a tent they received from Medical Teams. Photo by Lina Hernandez.

Our humanitarian storefront gives people the choice of what they might need to care for themselves and their families as they continue their journeys.

The items we carry include:

  • Skin protection and personal hygiene items like: sunscreen, hydration creams, soap, deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and toilet paper.
  • Illness and infection prevention items like: antibacterial gel and wipes, masks, mosquito repellents, mosquito nets, and small bags for contaminated trash.
  • Women’s health items like: menstruation pads, maternity pads, contraceptives, urination funnels, and emergency whistles.
  • Baby and infant health items like: diapers, oral rehydration salts, and baby carrying slings.
  • General health items: water, water purifying tablets, hats, tents, auto-charging flashlights, isothermal blankets, eco-friendly towels, bandages, gauze, and long socks.

Who is crossing the Darién Gap?

Though it might be comforting to imagine that people crossing the Darién Gap are criminals or bad actors, the sad reality is that the majority of people we see are families focused on the well-being of their children. They’re people just like any of us, trying to get their family to a safe place where they have the opportunity to live peacefully, work, and educate their children.

Each person’s story and motivation for crossing is different. That said, generally the people crossing are on much longer journeys across the continent. Though there are a high number of people from Venezuela, what’s happening in the Darién Gap is a little more complicated. It also serves as a migrant route for people from all over the world facing conflict, disaster, and economic distress. This includes people from Haiti, China, Ecuador, Peru, and some African countries.

Medical Teams does not have information about everyone crossing the Darién Gap, but the majority of people we serve are families. Meet 2 women whose stories our team in Colombia shared with us from our base in Urabá!

Meet Nolly

Nolly’s faith in God and her determination are carrying her through this difficult journey. Photo by Lina Hernandez.

Nolly García has a wide smile and a strong faith — it’s what keeps her positive as she faces the daunting journey ahead. She says, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Nolly, who is traveling with her family in a group of 10, believes that their determination and belief in God will help them succeed and keep them safe.

Her decision to migrate was in part spurred by Venezuela’s dire economic situation. Even while working multiple jobs, she couldn’t make enough to support herself and her daughter in the face of rising inflation.

Nolly and her family visited Medical Teams in Necoclí, where they received education about respiratory infections and virus prevention. As the team checked the family, it was a relief to see that everyone was in good health. It helped Nolly feel more prepared for the trip.

Nolly prefers not to look at social media about what’s happening in the Darién Gap to avoid mental health issues. “I don’t look at social media because they only show the bad side of the journey,” she says.

Nolly went on to say,

“But no one talks about the NGOs and the help that is a relief for us. No one talks about how someone lent us a helping hand.”

Nolly shares that she doesn’t feel abandoned in Necoclí because there is always someone to help her. Thanks to that, she has learned how to navigate and take care of herself and her daughter on the journey. It’s a good reminder that education and prevention are critical to people’s well-being in the face of challenges like these.

Meet Deisy

Deisy, with her youngest daughter, Alaia, waits to cross the Darién Gap. Photo by Lina Hernandez.

Deisy Moreno is an artisan and mother from Venezuela, whose love for her children is evident within just a few minutes of meeting her. After leaving Venezuela in her early twenties, Deisy moved from country to country in South America, saving money in the hope of finding somewhere safer with more stability. She settled with her husband and older daughter in Bogota, where her younger daughter Alaia was born.

Now, they’re hoping to head further north from Colombia to meet family. Deisy has been on the Necoclí beach for 3 days, ready to go with her husband and daughters.

There, she met Medical Teams, who gave her information about how to take care of her children when they’re in the jungle. Viruses and the flu are common ailments. Medical Teams also provided her information on good hygiene practices that she can maintain during the trip to prevent diseases.

Deisy says,

“I realized that I had very little information about how to take care of my health, especially about Acute Respiratory Infections.”

We were able to get in touch with Deisy after she left for Panamá. At the beginning of April, she and her family were in Honduras. Deisy told us that it’s been a slow journey, but that everyone is fine. They have continued to face difficulties, especially in Costa Rica.

In the midst of this, she is optimistic because her family is in good health. Deisy’s story is a testament to how important health care is for all people, but especially in difficult contexts like in the Darién Gap.

Help what’s happening in the Darién Gap

Our team in Colombia is working hard to help people crossing the Darién Gap. Photo by Lina Hernandez.

Women like Nolly and Deisy illustrate that what’s happening in the Darién Gap is a tragedy. People are making the difficult decision to cross a dangerous jungle as they journey to safety and security. Opening our hearts and extending our compassion through the provision of health care is just one small way we live out our calling.

We’re proud to care for these courageous people, and we’re grateful for the tireless dedication and commitment of our staff in Colombia.

If you’d like to help what’s happening in the Darién Gap, consider joining The Pulse! The Pulse is our compassionate community of recurring givers, who show up day in and day out to power the heartbeat of Medical Teams’ work.