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For Migrants Headed Towards The Darien Gap, A Glimmer Of Hope

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Colombia and Panama recently announced that the two countries will work together to process and organize thousands of migrants stranded in northern Colombia. They're trying to make their way north to the U.S., and the next stage of this journey is the Darien Gap. This is a jungle at the border of the two countries. Officials have said they plan to organize migrants and improve travel routes in order to protect them. Nadja Drost reported on the risky journey that thousands of migrants go through every year, crossing the Darien Gap. She won a Pulitzer Prize for that reporting, and she joins us now.

Welcome.

NADJA DROST: Thank you, Ailsa. So great to be with you.

CHANG: So something so interesting that your reporting highlights is that these migrants trying to cross the Darien Gap, they come from many parts of the world. Tell us where.

DROST: So it's fascinating, Ailsa, because in the Darien Gap, which, as you mentioned, is this very isolated jungle, it actually becomes a kind of microcosm of migrants from all over the world. It's really the nexus. You find them coming from South Asia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, as well as Central and Western Africa. Most migrants are actually coming from Haiti and the Caribbean at the moment. It really gives you a sense of what is happening around the world because you meet people who are fleeing untenable situations.

CHANG: Can you describe just the obstacles that the landscape poses on them?

DROST: Absolutely. This is a really treacherous journey. It's one of the wettest places on the planet. So river levels surge all the time as a result of heavy rainfalls, and this can often sweep migrants to their death. And it's unfortunately not an uncommon sight to find dead migrants wrapped up in their tents in the river. Many of them become injured along the way. They starve. And so we see that, you know, for many people, they can't actually make it out of the jungle.

CHANG: And in addition to this treacherous terrain, they also have to contend with the risk of criminals along the way, don't they?

DROST: Migrants are subjected to almost systematic robbery and sexual assault along the way. Most women end up being sexually assaulted by these armed bandits on the trail, and then there are occasional murders along this jungle.

CHANG: Well, for the people who are willing to make this incredibly harrowing journey, there seems to be some hopeful news - right? - this recent news about the Colombian and Panamanian governments wanting to organize the flow of migrants. But I'm just wondering, from your experience, how tenable do you think these plans are?

DROST: I think that there is so much potential to make this route safer. The Darien Gap is obviously a geographic barrier. But for people like you and I, with the so-called right passports, we can cross easily into Panama. If Panama wants to make this route safer, they can entirely make migrants avoid this treacherous journey by allowing them, perhaps, transit visas or a legal way to transit through the country. I think that one concern for government officials is that by making this route safer for migrants, that perhaps there won't be a deterrent anymore. But when we look at the statistics, we see that the numbers of migrants have been increasing over the past several years. And I think the question is now becoming, how do we ensure that this is not such a deadly route?

CHANG: Nadja Drost received a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for her reporting on the Darien Gap for The California Sunday Magazine.

Thank you so much, Nadja.

DROST: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.