Growing numbers of Chinese citizens set their sights on the US – via the deadly Darién Gap
Surge in number of disillusioned Chinese citizens fleeing to the US by trekking through the dangerous jungle between Colombia and Panama
On the first day of 2023, Xu was in no mood to celebrate the new year. He had just arrived in the Colombian beach town of Necoclí along with dozens of other Chinese citizens, weary from a two-day bus trip from Ecuador. Their goal was the US via the Darién Gap, a roadless, lawless and extremely dangerous stretch of rainforest connecting South and Central America. He wanted to leave China far behind him.
“After I leave the country [China], I have no plans to go back alive,” says Xu later, speaking to the Guardian in a Necoclí hotel room. “I feel like this country has been deceiving us, persecuting us. I have to do something.”
Necoclí is a tourist spot known among locals for its Caribbean music festivals but it is also a major starting point for migrants heading north to Panama through the jungle. It is the only overland path from south to north America. From Panama they continue through several Central American countries to the Mexico-US border.
It is a route riddled with dangers – from the perils of the jungle’s fast-running rivers and deadly wildlife, to gangs and criminals operating in the region, but Xu is desperate.
Assome compatriots eat a local pastry dedito de queso, the 31-year-old construction worker, who asked to only use a surname, joins others to chant “knock CCP down!”.
The march through the Darién Gap of Haitians, Venezuelans and Cubans fleeing economic collapse and political persecution has been well-documented. But far less is known about the growing number of Chinese citizens trekking through the jungles between Colombia and Panama.
Across separate trips in November and January, the Guardian interviewed several Chinese men hoping to travel through the Darién Gap and into the US. They are part of a growing trend. Panamanian government data shows about 400 Chinese citizens made the journey during the first half of 2022. In November last year, the figure rose to 377, then to 695 in December. In January 2023, a record-breaking 913 Chinese nationals crossed, making them the fourth-largest group of migrants to do so this year.
The January crossings account for 28% of the total number of Chinese migrants recorded in the Darién Gap since 2010, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) told the Guardian.
A combination of draconian Covid lockdowns and Xi Jinping’s increasingly repressive rule has pushed thousands to flee China. They term it “runology”, or runxue in Chinese. The relaxation of China’s zero-Covid policy and border controls in December and January has led to higher numbers of Chinese nationals taking the perilous journey.
“I know many wanted to leave [before], but they couldn’t,” says Xu.
Xu says that he used to identify with China’s “Little Pinks”, a growing group of cyber-nationalists, but in 2021, he began learning about the Great Chinese Famine and the Tiananmen Square massacre by using virtual private networks, or VPNs. “I realised [the CCP] don’t care about human rights,” Xu says.
Yin Chengxiang, another migrant waiting to cross from Necoclí, left China in mid-December. The 55-year-old cook from Nanjing says that China’s tough pandemic rules were just one of many reasons that he wanted to escape life under the Chinese Communist party.
“I’m not afraid of them at all,” Yin says. “We would go help Taiwan fight against the CCP if China attacks Taiwan.”
‘Will I die here tonight?’
Jiang, who asked to only use his surname, thought he would not make it out alive. The 28-year-old, once a finance student in Australia, travelled to the edge of the jungle with four Venezuelans and two Chinesein late September.
On the first evening, they set up a tent close to a river after hiking up several inclines. But heavy rains came, and the water rose rapidly, soaking their belongings and forcing them to move. On the second day, Jiang’s companion was injured. Jiang helped carry his bag but lost his own tent along the way. Again, there were flash floods
“I was so tired, hungry and cold. I almost lost my mind,” Jiang says. Finally, he found an abandoned tent, but two men from Ghana and Cameroon were already inside. As the rain continued Jiang begged the two men to share it.
“We four men slept side by side, huddling for warmth,” Jiang says. Water kept seeping into their tent. “I asked the two men, ‘will I die here tonight?’ And they encouraged me, ‘Everything will be OK, we will leave here alive’.”
Jiang managed to trek through the Darién and continued on toward the US, documenting much of his trail, including being stopped and searched by authorities, meeting other migrants, and visiting tourist sites, on social media. He was detained at the US border for 51 days before passing the asylum screening interview. He says his phone, bank card, and several documents went missing in the meantime.
“I just want to have a peaceful life,” Jiang tells the Guardian over the phone. He’s just finished his shift at a Chinese restaurant in Hawaii, where he is working illegally while waiting for his asylum claim.
“The US is not ideal, but it is a place where I can be who I am.”
The lure – and dangers – of the Darién Gap
Xu learned about his route through social media, where information about the crossing has spread, increasingly in Mandarin. Telegram groups with names like “United States DIY” or “run away to the US” have thousands of members. Migrants usually fly to Istanbul and then on to Ecuador, which is one of the few Latin American countries offering visa-free entry for Chinese nationals. From there, they travel by bus to Colombia, and Necoclí.
During zero-Covid, while Beijing prevented citizens leaving the country without “necessary and emergency” reasons, Xu spent months arranging his passport and a student visa to Italy through an immigration agent in China. He had no plans to obtain a degree – it was just an excuse for him to be allowed to leave.
He left Taizhou, in eastern Jiangsu province, on the morning of 25 November, avoiding a local lockdown by just a few hours. He travelled to Hong Kong, where his passport and documents were taken for several hours before he was allowed to board his flight to Thailand – an additional check against Chinese nationals attempting to migrate. “I was so nervous that I wouldn’t make it.”
Some migrants come from China’s working class, which suffered during the economic woes brought on by the pandemic. But many the Guardian meets, including a school teacher and a political prisoner, are middle class. On the same daythe Guardian visits, more than 30 Chinese appear in the port town, including several families with children.
A Colombian official says on the condition of anonymity that most are men aged between 20 and 55. They usually stay in hotels and enjoy a few good meals before heading into the jungle as they generally have more money than other migrants.
However, money doesn’t make the trek less treacherous. “They would be exposed to dangers such as robbery and may become victims of violent crimes or even disappearances,” the official said.
The 70-mile (110km) Darien route passes through mountains and fast-running rivers. Dangers include deadly spiders and snakes, including vipers and anacondas. There are widespread reports of exploitative people traffickers, smugglers and criminal groups along the route, including the Gulf Clan, a paramilitary group and Colombia’s largest drug cartel.
“Crossing this area can take up to 10 days on foot for the most vulnerable people, who are exposed to natural hazards and also to criminal groups that perpetrate violence, including sexual abuse or robbery,” Giuseppe Loprete, chief of mission at the IOM in Panama, told the Guardian. He said many migrants arrive in hard-to-reach Panamanian Indigenous communities hungry and dehydrated, requiring medical attention from the humanitarian organisations set up to meet them.
According to the IOM, at least 207 migrants have been reported missing or dead on the route between 2014 and 2022, including 41 deaths in 2022 alone. The Guardian was told by other migrants of at least six Chinese deaths in 2022, but was unable to confirm them. IOM says it has not identified any Chinese nationals who died in the Darién jungle last year, but it does not rule out the possibility.
The mass migration has drastically altered Necoclí itself, overwhelming its health system and other services. Locals do what they can to adapt, with many businesses now catering to the migrants. Less than 100 metres from the pier where migrants line up for boats to the Darien crossing, there is now a well-visited Chinese restaurant.
Freddy Marín, director of a major ferry company in Necoclí, told Taiwanese media outlet the Reporter late last year that 80% of his business has been selling boat tickets to migrants since last year. “We have earned more money from migrants than from tourists.” Marín emphasised that local authorities permit the company to help transport migrants.
Liang Zixuan, a Chinese immigration agent based in Tokyo,has noticed an increase in interest in reaching the US and believes plenty of Chinese migrants will still attempt the dangerous trek in the coming months. “For those who saw the government’s real face, they will leave regardless.”
Even though the Chinese government has now reopened the borders and relaxed restrictions, Xu is happy with his decision to leave. He points to the rash of suicides and family separations under zero-Covid, which were ignored by a state media only talking of a “tremendous victory”.
“They would do anything to disregard ordinary people’s pain,” he says. “I don’t know much about the US, but at least it’d be better than living in China … We’re like animals. We migrate to a warmer place, instead of staying in a cold place. We don’t want to be frozen to death.”