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A migrant carrying a baby crosses the Chucunaque River after walking for five days in the Darién Gap on the border of Panama and Colombia. Photo: Luis Acosta/ AFP via Getty Images

Panama is struggling to handle a surge of migrants crossing the deadly jungles of the Darién Gap separating the country from Colombia — many bound for the U.S., government officials, migration experts and members of Congress tell Axios.

Why it matters: Vice President Kamala Harris departed Sunday on her first trip to Central America after being tasked with the migration crisis. Most migrants reaching the U.S. border still hail from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador. But more people than before from farther-flung points are fleeing their homes and trying to enter the U.S.

  • Lax visa requirements in places like Brazil and Mexico, political and economic turmoil in South America, a still out-of-hand pandemic and hopes of eased enforcement are driving the growing push north.
  • "The trip through the Darién Gap presents migrants with really unimaginable hardships — thirst and hunger and crocodiles and snakes and armed cocaine traffickers and common thieves," Benjamin Gedan of the Wilson Center, a global policy forum, told Axios.

What they're saying: Reps. Tom Tiffany (R-Wis.) and Burgess Owens (R-Utah) visited the border village of Bajo Chiquito in Panama at the end of May.

  • "What we saw was people just rolling in, one after another," Tiffany said. "We saw people from Haiti, one person identified himself from Senegal. There was a person from Egypt. People talked about seeing Pakistanis come through."
  • Local villagers told them about seeing bodies float down the river, both Tiffany and Owens said. Migrants who survived the Darién Gap described "how they walked over bodies, people that just died in the jungle down there," said Tiffany.
  • Owens described seeing the red, infected and possibly gangrenous feet of one migrant who made it through.

Panamanian Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes has begun sounding the alarm, speaking with numerous U.S. and United Nations officials in recent weeks.

  • In a phone interview with Axios, Mouynes emphasized the point, saying, "We have them in migrant camps and we gradually lead them in a controlled flow to go through the border. All they want is: U.S., U.S., U.S."
  • One thousand migrants have crossed into Panama through the gap in a single day, the foreign minister added. The large and sporadic numbers can overwhelm towns in which the populations are smaller than the caravans.

Most migrants come from Haiti and Cuba, although hundreds who crossed from Colombia into Panama this year were originally from Bangladesh, Senegal or Nepal.

  • Mouynes expressed concern about the impact of Colombia's decision last month to open its borders again and emphasized the need for other countries to stop allowing visa-free travel.
  • Mouynes also told Axios that in addition to providing care for migrants, Panama runs biometrics and that officials had stopped some who had been flagged for associations to al-Qaida.

By the numbers: More than 5,000 migrants arrived through the Darién Gap in April and again in May, per data from Panama's migration agency — the highest monthly numbers in at least three years.

  • By comparison, the monthly peak was just shy of 4,000 during the 2019 U.S.-Mexico border surge.

Go deeper

Updated Aug 20, 2021 - Politics & Policy

DOJ asks Supreme Court for last minute stay over Trump's "Remain in Mexico" program

Attorney General Merrick Garland. Photo: Samuel Corum/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Biden administration is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to suspend a lower court's order that would force the administration to reinstate one of President Trump's border policies, which left tens of thousands of migrants to await asylum hearings in Mexico.

Why it matters: Ending the controversial Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) policy was one of President Biden’s campaign promises, and he suspended the program on his first day in office. The administration has now brought thousands of impacted migrants into the United States — some of whom waited years in Mexico.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Virginia attorney general fires Jan. 6 investigator from university post

McIntire Amphitheater at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo: Robert Knopes/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The lead investigator for the Jan. 6 House select committee investigating the Capitol riot has been fired from his position as the University of Virginia's counsel by the state's new Republican attorney general, per the Washington Post.

Why it matters: Democrats say the removal of Tim Heaphy from his post after some three years while he's on leave from the university to investigate the insurrection is likely "retribution" for the House probe — an accusation strongly denied by the office of state Attorney General Jason Miyares (R).

5 hours ago - World

Taiwan's military scrambles jets after detecting 39 Chinese warplanes

J-20 stealth fighter jets in Zhuhai in the Guangdong Province of China last year. Photo: Chen Jimin/China News Service via Getty Images

Taiwan's defense force said 39 Chinese warplanes flew into its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) on Sunday.

Why it matters: The largest Chinese air force incursion into the zone since October came a day after the U.S. and Japanese navies conducted a joint exercise in the Philippine Sea.

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