A “gap” of inhumanity: Latin American bishop cries out over Darién crisis

The Archbishop of Panama spoke to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about his experience in the region of the Darién Gap, one of the most inhospitable migratory routes in Latin America. Archbishop José Domingo Ulloa highlighted the urgent need for attention and action in the face of the terrible conditions that thousands of migrants face while attempting this perilous crossing.

“We feel we must raise our voice at the growing humanitarian crisis in the jungle region of the Darién Gap and the terrible conditions of death and vulnerability these migrants face”, said Archbishop José Domingo Ulloa, during a visit to the head office of the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church of Need (ACN). “An incalculable number of people lose their lives and many of the bodies of the fallen are never retrieved.”

Mons.José Domingo Ulloa Mendieta visiting the Darién region during Easter 2024
Mons.José Domingo Ulloa Mendieta visiting the Darién region during Easter 2024

The Darién Gap is a very dangerous jungle that forms the natural border between Colombia and Panama and is known to be one of the most difficult routes north, towards the United States. Thousands of people attempt the journey, especially Venezuelans, Ecuadorians, Colombians and Haitians, but also intercontinental migrants desperately trying to reach North America in search of a better life.

Archbishop Ulloa travelled to Darién in March, to participate in a gathering of bishops from the dioceses on the border of Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama, to discuss the terrible situation. The meeting was supported by ACN. “The sight of their faces was heartbreaking”, the bishop said. “Migration has the face of a woman: around 40% of the people who go this way are women. And it also has the face of children, of entire families… it tears at your soul to see it”, he explained. In 2023, over 517,000 people crossed the Darién region, 113,000 of whom were children, including thousands of unaccompanied minors.

The difficult journey is plagued with danger. Besides the tropical illnesses and wild animals, there are also armed gangs and human traffickers, who “make a living off the desperation of our brothers”, the Panamanian prelate denounces. “We want to use new digital technology to create an awareness campaign. I believe this is necessary. What are the dangers they will face if they try to cross? Because in this context, many people use the media to tell migrants that it will be easy going, when that isn’t true at all. It’s not easy. We understand the dramatic reasons that lead people to want to leave their own country, but I believe that we need to draw attention to the many dangers they will be facing on the way.”

Pope Francis: “A real Way of the Cross”

At the end of the meeting, the participating bishops issued a joint statement on the migration crisis, stressing the need to “listen, discern and act on our pastoral responsibilities”. Furthermore, they highlighted the need to not look the other way, claiming that “in a society such as ours, exclusion, xenophobia, discrimination and indifference must be counterbalanced by the construction of a culture of encounter, woven from hospitality and welcome”.

Bishops from Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama with migrants arriving after a dangerous journey through the jungle
Bishops from Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama with migrants arriving after a dangerous journey through the jungle

Pope Francis sent the participants a message of support, in which he described the migrants’ route through the Darién Jungle as “a real Way of the Cross”.

“When we met at the end of March”, Archbishop Ulloa said, “the Pope sent us words of encouragement. I still get emotional when I recall the Pope’s words: ‘I too was a migrant’. And he invited us, bishops, to accompany him and to wipe the tears from the face of the suffering Christ. It was a marvellous experience. Now we use this message a lot so that the migrants know that, that the Pope carries them in his heart.”

Archbishop Ulloa stresses that “the vast majority of these migrants are people of faith. We want to be present as a Church, for example, by setting up stations for psychological support for the women, many of whom are abused during the crossing and need special treatment and attention to overcome trauma, and also for the children. We need places where a priest or a woman religious can provide them with strength and consolation, and heal their wounds”, the bishop told ACN during his visit to the international headquarters.

Maria Lozano, Head of Press at ACN International, with José Domingo Ulloa Mendieta, Archbishop of Panama and Second Vice President of CELAM
Maria Lozano, Head of Press at ACN International, with José Domingo Ulloa Mendieta, Archbishop of Panama and Second Vice President of CELAM

In his opinion, all pastoral agents in the Church should undergo a process of awareness of migration, beginning with the bishops, priests and religious, but also the laity. “Sometimes, in our countries, we don’t understand the phenomenon of migration, but we should walk in the shoes of the migrants. One of the goals is to create awareness among all our pastoral agents so that they are wired to see the face of God in these migrants, and not to treat them as a threat. We have to integrate them into the community.” He added that “in Panama we have the experience that many of those who come were once catechists, and they end up being integrated as catechists in the parishes here. But that entails a complete transformation. How can we blend the richness they bring with the richness of the host country, so that in the end we can say: ‘We are all brothers?’

“I would like the migrants to find the Church as a mother, healing wounds. As a Church we want to be there, to be a reference point, to be able to provide a spiritual and psychological welcoming. We have to stress that migrants are not just numbers, they are people.” The Panamanian bishop concluded his visit by thanking ACN for its help and asking for prayers for his endeavour. “The first and most important help is the power of prayer, which gives us strength. From that perspective, we are one body. And as such, when even the smallest member suffers, the whole body suffers, and we need to make that suffering our own.”

 

By Maria Lozano and Lucía Ballester.

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