Rights groups and other observers have raised questions over a United States-led plan to stem the “illicit movement of people” through a dangerous jungle passage between Panama and Colombia popular with US-bound migrants and asylum seekers.
The US Department of Homeland Security said on Tuesday that a deal had been reached with the Panamanian and Colombian authorities to address “irregular migration” through the so-called Darien Gap.
The 60-day campaign seeks to “end the illicit movement of people and goods through the Darien by both land and maritime corridors”, as well as open “new lawful and flexible pathways for tens of thousands of migrants and refugees”, the department said in a statement.
The countries would also launch a plan to reduce poverty and create jobs in border communities in Panama and Colombia, it added, without going into further detail.
Almost immediately, observers questioned how the effort would function in practice.
“The externalization of the US border continues,” Al Otro Lado, an organisation that provides legal and other assistance to migrants and refugees in the US and Mexico, tweeted on Wednesday.
“The language in this statement is vague on purpose. How exactly do they intend to end migration thru the Darien Gap + ‘reduce poverty, create jobs’ in 60 days? What are these alleged ‘new lawful + flexible pathways’?”
The externalization of the US border continues. The language in this statement is vague on purpose. How exactly do they intend to end migration thru the Darien Gap + “reduce poverty, create jobs” in 60 days? What are these alleged “new lawful + flexible pathways”? All very sus. https://t.co/yvW6EklFCI
— Al Otro Lado (@AlOtroLado_Org) April 12, 2023
Nearly 250,000 migrants and refugees crossed through the Darien Gap last year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – nearly double the number of people who took the route in 2021.
“The stories we have heard from those who have crossed the Darien Gap attest to the horrors of this journey,” Giuseppe Loprete, the IOM’s chief of mission in Panama, said in a statement in January.
“Many have lost their lives or gone missing, while others come out of it with significant health issues, both physical and mental, to which we and our partners are responding.”
The administration of US President Joe Biden, which promised to reverse some of former President Donald Trump’s most hardline, anti-immigration policies, has nevertheless sought to deter migrants and asylum seekers from reaching the country’s southern border with Mexico.
Biden has been under political pressure domestically to address an increase in arrivals at the frontier and is now considering another plan that the United Nations refugee agency has warned could violate US obligations under international refugee law.
The proposal – dubbed an “asylum ban” by critics – would effectively block asylum seekers who arrive at the US-Mexico border from accessing protection in the US if they did not first apply for asylum in Mexico or another country they crossed earlier in their journeys.
Many people crossing the Darien Gap say they have no other choice as they face poverty, gang violence, political persecution and other crises in their home countries.
The IOM reported that a majority of those who crossed in 2022 – just more than 150,000 people – were from Venezuela, which has experienced a mass exodus amid years of socio-economic and political upheaval.
Ecuadorians, Haitians and Cubans also figured prominently among those who took the mountain route, which is rife with violence and natural hazards, including insects, snakes and unpredictable terrain.
Nearly 88,000 crossings were recorded in the first three months of 2023, the Reuters news agency reported, citing official Panama migration data.
On Wednesday, a senior Biden administration official told The Associated Press that US forces would “assist their Colombian and Panamanian counterparts with intelligence gathering to dismantle smuggling rings” in the Darien Gap.
“The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details that have not been made public, said migration through the Darien would not end, but the campaign is expected to have significant impact,” the news agency reported.
The official did not specify whether US forces involved in the 60-day campaign would be military or civilian law enforcement, AP said.