The trip through the Darién Gap forest area in Panama has become increasingly popular with migrants thanks to social media.
Panamanian officials say, in the first nine months of 2023, only Venezuelans, Ecuadorians and Haitians crossed the Darién Gap in greater numbers than Chinese people.
Chinese migrants who seek this path first travel to Ecuador. The country does not require Chinese citizens to have visas to enter the country. Once in Panama, the migrants travel north to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Chinese asylum-seekers spoke to the Associated Press, as well as observers. They told of fleeing an increasingly repressive political climate and worsening economy.
The pandemic and China’s COVID-19 border policies temporarily slowed emigration. Now people are again leaving, as China's economy is struggling, and youth unemployment is high. The United Nations has projected China will lose 310,000 people through emigration this year, compared with 120,000 in 2012.
The movement is known as “runxue,” or the study of running away. The term started as a way to trick government agents who control internet content. The term uses a Chinese character that sounds like the English word “run” but means “to lightly wet." Now, runxue is an internet meme.
Cai Xia leads the online commentary site Yibao and is a former professor at the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.
She says the movement represents the despair many in the country are feeling.
“They’ve lost hope for the future of the country,” said Cai, who now lives in the U.S. “You see among them the educated and the uneducated, white-collar workers, as well as small business owners, and those from well-off families.”
The U.S. Border Patrol arrested 22,187 Chinese for crossing the border illegally from Mexico from January through September. That is an almost 13 times increase from the same period in 2022. Such arrests reached 4,010 in September, up 70 percent from August. Chinese migrants now represent the ninth-highest nationality at the U.S. border and the highest outside of Mexico, Central and South America. The huge majority were single adults.
Migrants from China join Latin Americans in Ecuador to travel north through the Darién. They continue across several Central American countries before reaching the U.S. border. The trip is well-known enough that it has its own name in Chinese: walk the line, or “zouxian.”
Social media has supported the movement through the Darién Gap. Short videos and messaging sites provide information as well as step-by-step guides on how to go from China to the U.S. They include advice on what to bring, where to get guides, how to survive in the wild and more. There are sites that even tell migrants how much money to pay police for favorable treatment in different countries.
The trip can cost a migrant thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. Many migrants who spoke to the AP did not give their full names. They said they were fearful it would hurt their chances for asylum. Some said they came for economic reasons and paid as much as $56,000 for the trip.
In recent weeks, Chinese migrants have made camps in the California desert as they wait to surrender to U.S. officials and ask for asylum.
Near the small town of Jacumba, hundreds crowded along a border wall. Others tried to sleep on large rocks nearby or under the few trees in the area. Small campfires keep them warm overnight. Without food or running water, the migrants depend on volunteers who provide water and simple meals.
I’m Caty Weaver.