U.S.-backed plan to stop migrants from crossing the Darién Gap faces major obstacles
By Luke Taylor
A US-backed plan to stop migrants from crossing the lawless Darién Gap will likely fail and only push desperate people further into the hands of merciless people-trafficking organisations, migration experts have warned.
The US Department of Homeland Security announced on Tuesday that it had brokered a deal with the Colombian and Panamanian governments to halt migrants crossing the land bridge on their journey northward to the US.
The number of people traversing the lawless strip of land between Colombia and Panama has spiked to record numbers in the last two years.
In an effort to bring those numbers down, the three governments will execute a 60-day campaign to “end the illicit movement of people and goods through the Darién by both land and maritime corridors”, they said in a joint statement.
The communique gave little information on how migrants would be stopped but the homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, told the Spanish news agency EFE that any illegal migrants making the trip will be “turned back”.
Given that the Darién Gap is a lawless region run by armed groups, it is likely the plan would require militarisation, a scenario which Nicole Phillips, legal director of Haitian Bridge Alliance, an immigration policy non-profit, described as “terrifying”.
Simultaneously, the US said it would try to take down drug and people-trafficking networks with intelligence operations and open “new lawful and flexible pathways for tens of thousands of migrants and refugees” so they are not forced to risk their lives on the Darién route.
“It sounds like a good idea on paper but it’s not an effective way of reducing migration,” warned Phillips.
Colombian and Panamanian governments have never established control over the 60-mile stretch of dense jungle between the two countries.
Decaying bodies of migrants are routinely found deep in the rainforest, having been lost to its turbulent rivers, venomous snakes and steep ravines.
Those who survive the arduous two-week trek are at the mercy of armed groups that frequently rob and rape vulnerable migrants.
Given the risk that migrants already undergo fleeing poverty or persecution, Blaine Bookey at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies said she doubted authorities can deter them from making the trip.
More likely, migrants will be pushed further underground and forced to take more dangerous routes.
“When people are fleeing for their lives and there is no opportunity to seek safety, they will find a way,” said Bookey.
Only the poorest of migrants who cannot afford to take a boat in order to skip the trek walk through the Darién Gap. And traffickers consistently devise new routes that subject migrants to new risks.
Last month the Colombian navy intercepted 30 Venezuelans who had taken a tiny boat from the Colombian island of San Andrés to Central America, 15 of whom were reportedly abandoned on an island.
“You might close the Darién but who knows what the smugglers will imagine,” said Bookey.
Despite the harrowing tales of robbery, rape and death in the Darién Gap, the number of people and families making the journey surged in 2022 to record levels and continues to grow.
According to Panamanian migration officials, 88,000 have made the trip so far this year – seven times as many as in the same period last year. Officials estimate that many as 400,000 will take the route in 2023.
Facing pressure from conservatives, the Biden administration is trying to cut down on irregular migration and has set its sights on the booming foot traffic through the Darién.
Currently, a Trump administration law, Title 42, uses the pandemic as justification to prohibit asylum claims at the US-Mexico land border, requiring Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Haitians and Cubans to apply formally and meet certain requirements instead.
But Title 42 is set to expire in May. “We are concerned that there may be an increase in the level of migration,” Mayorkas, the US homeland security secretary, said.
The US says it plans to make it easier to migrate legally so that migrants no longer need to make one of the most dangerous treks in the world.
The proposal is encouraging, but the most desperate migrants often cannot meet the requisites due to the dire conditions in the countries from which they are fleeing, said Phillips.
In Haiti – with an economy, health system and democracy that are being torn apart by armed bandits warring for control of the country – some do not have contacts in the US to vouch for them and even more do not have enough money to travel by air.
Passports have also become so scarce that corrupt officials are selling them to vulnerable women in exchange for sex, Phillips said.
“They will find other ways, and the smugglers who want to make money will also find other ways that are more dangerous,” Phillips added. “The thought of [the US, Panama and Colombia] further militarising in order to keep migrants out is terrifying for people’s safety.”
She said it was disappointing that human rights were not mentioned even once in the trilateral statement, given the dire and growing humanitarian crisis in the Darién.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which attends to migrants needing medical assistance when they emerge from the jungle in Panama, says it welcomes initiatives to protect migrants but is “concerned” by the possible militarisation of borders.
“We have seen in other countries that it can lead to more danger, not ensuring basic services and may increase suffering,” Luis Eguiluz, head of mission for MSF Colombia and Panama, said.
There are also questions as to how migrants from countries outside of Latin America would be dealt with at the border.
“What about the migrants coming from the Middle East, Africa and Asia and transiting through Colombia?” asked Giacomo Finzi, a researcher at the National University of Colombia.
Credit: The Guardian