Pope Francis addresses migrant crisis in Darien Gap: ‘Every refugee challenges us’

Migrants traversing Darien Gap In 2023, over half a million migrants headed toward the United States crossed the Darien Gap, the inhospitable jungle region between Colombia and Panama. | Credit: Gonzalo Bell/Shutterstock.com

Pope Francis on Wednesday sent a letter to the bishops of Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica highlighting the need to develop greater pastoral care and initiatives to assist migrants who travel through the treacherous Darien Gap.

“As Christians, every refugee and migrant who leaves his or her homeland challenges us,” the pope wrote. “In our villages we find at the same time the hospitable fraternity that welcomes with human sensitivity, but also, unfortunately, the indifference that stains the Darién with blood.”

The pope’s message comes as bishops from the episcopal conferences of the three countries conclude a four-day meeting in Panama titled “Easter with Our Migrant Brothers and Sisters,” focused on the Catholic Church’s pastoral outreach and services amid the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Central America. 

The 100-mile-long Darien Gap, located on the border between Panama and Colombia, is one of the world’s most trafficked — and dangerous — migratory pathways. 

The sparsely populated jungled region (the only overland passage connecting Central and South America) has no paved roads nor basic infrastructure in place to facilitate the passage of migrants.

Yet many migrants remained undeterred in making the journey north, despite the treacherous conditions, risk of disease, and death, as well as mounting pressure from the Biden administration on Latin American governments to halt crossings. 

According to figures released by the Panamanian government, the number of migrants who passed through the Darien Gap reached a record high of 520,000 in 2023, more than double the number who came in 2022.

“Neither the dangers posed by transit and illegal blackmail nor the increasing returns or stalemates in countries where these brothers and sisters are not wanted diminish the attraction (real or illusory) of satisfying the needs of employment and better living conditions, or even of a hoped-for family reunification,” Francis wrote to the bishops this week.

But the pope also noted that it is a “pastoral opportunity” so migrants can “find in the Church a place where he or she will not feel judged but welcomed, where hunger and thirst can be quenched and hope revived.” 

While acknowledging the extensive network of humanitarian services already provided by the Catholic Church — including shelters, returnee centers, medical care, legal advice, and spiritual support — the pope stressed that pastors and those in the service of migrants should “go beyond the limits of the established.”

Pope Francis encouraged the bishops to confront the myriad challenges presented by the influx of migrants by developing a unified, regional approach. The pope stressed that meeting the immediate needs of migrants does preclude longer-term solutions that would ameliorate the structural issues behind the migration crisis.

“I recalled that the right not to migrate is presented to us as a solution, albeit a long-term one, to forced migration, through the regional integration of countries of expulsion, transit, destination, and return of migrants,” the pope wrote.

“I urge you, therefore, to join forces with all the bodies of the international community so that everyone may have the right to remain in their homeland with a dignified and peaceful life.”

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