Darien 'challenge': a humanitarian crisis aggravated by a hashtag

9 minutes
Darien 'challenge': a humanitarian crisis aggravated by a hashtag
"Art collage of people crossing the jungle with phones", performed by Adobe Firefly.

On their way to the United States, thousands of migrants in recent years have crossed the Darien Gap, the jungle that separates Panama and Colombia and interrupts the land connection in continental America. In addition to backpacks with clothes and food to withstand the difficult conditions of the terrain - boggy roads, ravines and fast-flowing rivers - in recent months some migrants have added an additional element to their equipment: a cell phone with TikTok. 

According to a recent report in the New York Times, variations of the hashtag #SelvaDarién have reached more than 500 million views on the social network. Little by little, the platform has been accumulating more and more publications of migrants who record their journey in short videos and selfies in which they relate their experience, give advice and even encourage others to undertake the same path.

"You see me like this, very normal and everything... but I'm very tired," says a man who crosses the jungle smiling, while an audio of pre-recorded laughter plays in the background. The speaker is Ender Contreras, a migrant who has posted videos about the Darien and other stops along his route, which have reached more than 12 million views on TikTok. In another video, Contreras shows a dozen people in life jackets navigating a river before leaving the area. The text of the publication reads: "A little ride in the canoes, on the way out of the Darien". 

@endercontrerass A little ride in the canoes, heading out of the Darien 💪 Thanks to brother Indio Panameño who let me record the experience and share it with the world.... #Viral#Usa#conqueringamerica#Darien#Panama#Colombia#Eldarien ♬ original sound - Ender Contreras

So far in 2022, nearly 30 people have died or disappeared while attempting to cross this jungle. Migrants are not only exposed to accidents, dangerous animals or disease, but to the armed groups that control the region. According to Doctors Without Borders, at least 88 women were victims of sexual violence while crossing from Panama to Colombia last year. Many of those arriving on the other side do so with respiratory, gastrointestinal and dermatological conditions, or with symptoms of post-traumatic stress and anxiety. 

TikTok' s policies prohibit the promotion of dangerous activities, content that offers instructions to carry out illegal acts, and content that promotes human smuggling. Although in more than one sense the migrant videos could be interpreted as a breach of these rules, a company spokesperson assured the New York Times that they would not disable the tags on the platform. However, shortly thereafter the media outlet found that some content had been removed for violating community standards. 

The handling of the problem is not simple. On the one hand, migrants have the right to denounce their situation and make visible the humanitarian crisis they are experiencing firsthand. For citizens, moreover, it is a matter of public interest. However, these publications distort what it really means to migrate to the United States through the Darien. 

The use of emojis, background audio and filters alters the interpretation of situations where the protagonists are risking their lives. It is possible, for example, that human traffickers resort to this strategy as a marketing formula.

Videos on the route could encourage this risky expedition with misleading information and without a clear context. The use of emojis, background audio and filters alters the interpretation of situations where the protagonists are risking their lives. With the additional element that in many cases it is not possible to determine the authenticity of the content or the motivations for publishing them. It is possible, for example, that human traffickers use this strategy as a marketing formula. For Maria Clara Robayo, researcher at the Venezuela Observatory of the Universidad del Rosario, the situation is aggravated when there are no official sources with which to contrast the information. 

The humanitarian crisis on the Colombia-Panama border has been worsening and the political, social and economic conditions on the continent do not project a better outlook for the short term. This year, 158,000 people, mostly Venezuelans, have braved the Darien jungle. The number, which represents a record since the area was established as a transit point to the United States, is increasing without the platforms being clear on how to deal with this problem. 

Meanwhile, those who rest in the Darien next to a river or in a spellbinding camp, after overcoming stretches with such telling names as "mountain of death" or "hill of the devil", still take the time to take out their cell phones, record their companions and tell those on the other side of the screen: "Energy, yes we can do it! 

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