By David Agren | OSV News
(OSV News) — The United States has announced a plan to halt irregular migration through the Darién Gap — a treacherous stretch of thick jungle separating Colombia and Panama — though Catholics working on immigration issues say the scheme is unlikely to contain the vast flows of people heading northward.
The plan by the U.S., Colombia and Panama proposes “to end the illicit movement of people and goods through the Darién by both land and maritime corridors, which leads to death and exploitation of vulnerable people for significant profit,” according to an April 11 statement from the three countries.
Other objectives include opening “new lawful and flexible pathways” for migrants and refugees as an alternative, along with developing a plan for reducing poverty in northern Colombia and southern Panama.
“Every year, tens of thousands of migrants attempt to cross the border between Panamá and Colombia, putting their lives in the hands of smugglers, with many perishing while attempting to pass through the treacherous terrain,” the statement said.
The 60-day program was announced as the U.S. prepares for the May 11 lifting of a pandemic-era provision known as Title 42, which allows for the immediate expulsion of migrants and asylum-seekers arriving at the U.S. border. Title 42 is a public health provision enforced to restrict border entry over COVID-19 concerns.
No roads cut through the Darién Gap, a rich ecosystem, which has long acted as a buffer between Central America and South America. The Gap, in fact, used to be called “a plug” that divided Central America and South America because of how difficult a route it is. Few migrants risked the treacherous trail through a jungle rife with bandits.
But this has changed in recent years, when people desperate to reach a better life began entrusting all their savings to smugglers to get them through the Gap. A group of smugglers known as the Clan del Golfo preys upon migrants entering the Darién Gap, according to media reports, offering safe passage in exchange for a large fee.
With the help of smugglers, the numbers of those passing through the Gap skyrocketed. Some 38,099 people — 1,229 per day — crossed through the Darién Gap in March, according to Panamanian immigration statistics collated by the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights think tank. That represented a 55% increase over the previous month. According to Panama’s government, more than 87,000 migrants crossed the Darién Gap in the first three months of the year.
Venezuelans made up a majority of the migrants crossing into Panama, but more than 1,000 people from both China and India passed through the Darién Gap.
Two U.N. groups said April 13 that as many as 400,000 migrants may cross the dangerous Gap this year, a colossal increase from 250,000 crossing it in 2022.
“The stories we have heard from those who have crossed the Darién Gap attest to the horrors of this journey,” Giuseppe Loprete, chief of mission at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in Panama warns on the organization’s website. “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.”
While the new agreement may be considered a good idea politically for solving the problem of the Gap, Catholic workers warn it may not bring live-saving solutions for migrants from all corners of the world taking a deadly risk with hopes to reach the U.S.
“For migrants starting their trips in faraway continents, the route through the Darién Gap, although it’s expensive, is much less costly than entering another way,” Elías Cornejo, migrant services coordinator for the Jesuit ministry Fe y Alegría in Panama, told OSV News.
Cornejo described the agreement as an attempt to turn the Darién Gap into a “bottleneck” that would keep migrants contained far from the U.S. border. “It’s a question of political will” in Panama and Colombia, he said.
“What (the United States) wants is that they don’t get to the U.S,,” Jesuit Father José Luis González, coordinator of the Jesuit Migrant Network in Central America and North America, told OSV News.
Father Gonzalez stressed that a better solution would be to make the passage less cruel. “The Darién Gap cannot be closed again,” he added.
The new U.S. plan includes investing to reduce poverty and create jobs in the Colombian and Panamanian border communities, presumably so fewer people attempt to smuggle migrants. No details of the possible new routes for migrants nor improving the often-deadly passage has been released.