Panama to increase deportations, efforts to halt Darien Gap crossings

Record numbers have crossed the Darien Gap, a strip of jungle between Panama and Colombia once seen as impassable.

Migrants, mostly Venezuelans, walk across the Darien Gap from Colombia into Panama hoping to reach the U.S. on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
Migrants, mostly Venezuelans, walk across the Darien Gap on October 15, 2022, hoping to reach the US [File: Fernando Vergara/AP Photo]

The Central American nation of Panama has announced new measures to crack down on migrants and asylum seekers entering the country, as a record number of people attempt to cross the inhospitable Darien Gap.

On Friday, Panamanian authorities said that they would increase deportations, build new installations in border areas and increase requirements for foreigners seeking short-term stays.

“We will increase these deportations so that the required impact is felt,” National Immigration Authority Director Samira Gozaine said on Friday.

She explained that President Laurentino Cortizo had authorised charter planes to be used to help with the planned uptick in deportation flights. Gozaine also said her government agency would collaborate with the security ministry to increase the deportation of people with criminal records by twofold.

In addition, Panama will decrease the maximum tourist stay from 90 days to 15. Visitors will be required to demonstrate they have at least $1,000 in funds, up from $500.

Gozaine added that those requirements would not apply to all nationalities.

For years, Central American nations have stepped up immigration enforcement efforts, often at the behest of the United States, erecting new obstacles for the steady stream of people making the journey north.

The journey is plagued with violence, with areas like the Darien Gap under the control of criminal networks and armed groups.

A strip of thick jungle connecting Colombia and Panama, the gap has a reputation for injury and death. Not only do migrants and asylum seekers face threats from criminal organisations, but the terrain is so perilous it was once considered impassable, with steep mountains, rushing rivers and tangled forest.

Official data shows that more than 350,000 people have navigated the Darien Gap so far in 2023.

That number has already blown past the previous record of 250,000 in 2022, and the United Nations expected this year’s total to reach 400,000, an unprecedented level.

In April, the US announced an agreement with Panama and Colombia to “end” migration through the Darien Gap. That agreement included a 60-day period of increased enforcement operations, as well as some efforts to address “root causes” of migration in the region, such as poverty and political instability.

Still, people from countries like Haiti, Venezuela and Afghanistan continue to risk their lives walking across the gap, in the absence of accessible legal pathways to countries like the US.

Migrant rights groups have slammed heightened immigration enforcement efforts, arguing that they push migrants and asylum seekers to pursue ever more dangerous journeys to avoid authorities.

Many of those making the journey north, they add, are fleeing violence or extreme poverty in their home countries. According to the UN, one in five of those braving the Darien Gap this year are children.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies