The United States has announced a plan to address the “illicit movement of people” through the Darien Gap, a dangerous jungle passage between Panama and Colombia that is popular with US-bound migrants and asylum seekers. The US Department of Homeland Security has reached a deal with the Panamanian and Colombian authorities to address “irregular migration” through the area. The 60-day campaign aims to “end the illicit movement of people and goods through the Darien by both land and maritime corridors”, while also opening “new lawful and flexible pathways for tens of thousands of migrants and refugees”. The countries will also launch a plan to reduce poverty and create jobs in border communities in Panama and Colombia.
However, rights groups and other observers have raised questions about how the plan will function in practice. Al Otro Lado, an organisation that provides legal and other assistance to migrants and refugees in the US and Mexico, tweeted that “the language in this statement is vague on purpose” and questioned how the US intends to end migration through the Darien Gap and “reduce poverty, create jobs” in just 60 days.
Almost 250,000 migrants and refugees crossed through the Darien Gap last year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – almost double the number who took the route in 2021. 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. A majority of those who crossed in 2022 – just over 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.
The Biden administration has promised to reverse some of former President Donald Trump’s most hardline, anti-immigration policies, but has also sought to deter migrants and asylum seekers from reaching the country’s southern border with Mexico. Biden 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.
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 did not specify whether US forces involved in the 60-day campaign would be military or civilian law enforcement.