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US plan to plug the Darien Gap under fire

1 May 20230 comments

Refugee rights groups have raised questions over a US-led plan to plug the Darien Gap.

The Biden administration scheme aims to stem the “irregular” movement of people” through the dangerous jungle passage between Panama and Colombia that has become popular with US-bound migrants and asylum seekers.

The US Department of Homeland Security recently announced a deal with the Panamanian and Colombian authorities to address “irregular migration” through the gap.

The 60-day campaign seeks to “end the illicit movement of people and goods through the Darien Gap by both land and maritime corridors”.

It also vows to open “new lawful and flexible pathways for tens of thousands of migrants and refugees”, the announcement said.

The countries would also launch a plan to reduce poverty and create jobs in border communities in Panama and Colombia, it said.

But activists have questioned how the effort would function in practice.

“The externalisation of the US border continues,” said Al Otro Lado, an organisation that provides legal and other assistance to migrants and refugees in the US and Mexico.

Almost 250,000 migrants and refugees passed 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.

“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,” he said.

The administration of US President Joe Biden, which promised to reverse former President Donald Trump’s hard-line, anti-immigration policies, has implemented a policy to deter migrants and asylum seekers from reaching the country’s southern border with Mexico.

President Biden has been under political pressure domestically to address an increase in arrivals at the frontier and is considering another plan to stymie irregular migration that would bar 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.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR has warned this move could violate US obligations under international refugee law. 

Refugee support groups say many people crossing the Darien Gap report that they have no other choice as they face poverty, gang violence and political persecution 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 seen a mass exodus of people caused by years of socio-economic and political upheaval.

Ecuadorians, Haitians and Cubans have also figured prominently among people traversing the Darien Gap, which is characterised by violence and natural hazards, including insects, snakes and unpredictable terrain.

Nearly 88,000 crossings were recorded in the first three months of 2023, reports, based on Panamanian migration data, said.