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US, Panama announce plan to stop Darién migration

The United States and Panama have announced a joint plan to shut down the Darién Gap – the treacherous migration route connecting South and Central America that has seen annual numbers crossing soar from a few thousand to more than half a million in just a few years.

Under the agreement, the US will pay the costs of repatriating any migrants and asylum seekers entering Panama illegally and deploy Homeland Security teams to help the Panamanian government crack down on those using the route.

The deal comes shortly after newly elected Panamanian President José Raúl Mulino pledged to seek international assistance to curb what he framed as a costly humanitarian crisis.

In his inaugural address to the nation, Mulino said: “We cannot continue financing the economic and social costs that massive illegal immigration generates for the country, along with the consequent connection of international criminal organisations."

The Darién Gap – the only overland route into Central America and (for most) to ultimately seek safety or work in the United States – is a largely lawless jungle region on the border of Colombia and Panama where drug cartels, criminal groups, and corrupt officials hold sway.

Numbers crossing the swampy rainforest route surged to 520,000 in 2023. Known deaths on the route that year were over 140, but experts say the real number is likely far higher as many deaths go unreported. Many more were victims of crime, abuse, and gender-based violence.

The majority of those taking the risky journey are fleeing conflict and harsh economic situations across Latin America and the Caribbean. Venezuelans, Haitians, and Ecuadorians make up the largest contingents, but an increasing number of people from outside the Americas are making the journey from countries as far away and as disparate as China, Angola, and Bangladesh.

The latest announcement will only add to concerns about the abusive and militarised reaction to the crisis. An April Human Rights Watch report laid bare the inadequate responses of both the Panamanian and Colombian governments.

For more context and background, check out our ongoing series: The Darién Gap: The reality behind the numbers

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