Panama registers record number of migrants crossing treacherous Darien Gap

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PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - A record 42,000 migrants bound for North America have this year entered Panama by trekking across the perilous jungle area known as the Darien Gap, Panamanian authorities said on Wednesday, warning the numbers are likely to increase as borders open up.

Every year many migrants perish during the gruelling six-day hike across the Darien Gap, a mountainous rainforest wilderness that straddles Colombia and Panama.

Migrants who survive the trek talk of being preyed on by both wild animals and criminal gangs.

The previous record for crossings of the Darien Gap was in 2016, when more than 25,000 migrants, most from Haiti, Cuba and outside Latin America, crossed into Panama, according to Security Minister Juan Pino.

"This year has been very crucial," Pino told reporters. "More than 42,000 migrants have already passed through Panama and this is expected to increase."

Until June, the National Migration Service had registered the irregular crossing of 26,992 people through the Darien Gap.

Upon arrival in Panama, the migrants generally stay a few weeks in shelters, and are then transferred to the border with Costa Rica as the two countries have an agreement that allows for a controlled and coordinated flow of migrants.

In 2020, the transit of migrants collapsed because of the closure of borders and other measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. That year 8,594 migrants passed through Panama, a 61% decline on 2019, according to Panamanian Migration figures.

However, with many countries loosening border restrictions, Panamanian officials expect migrant numbers to increase.

"Their only interest is to go through Panama to go to the United States and Canada," said Pino.

(Reporting by Elida Moreno; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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