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The (Literal) Gap in U.S. Migration Policy

Kamala Harris’s recent trip to Latin America missed a brewing crisis in Panama’s Darién region.

By , Panama’s minister of foreign affairs.
Haitian migrants cross the Chucunaque River by boat to La Penita village, Darién province, Panama, on May 23, 2019.
Haitian migrants cross the Chucunaque River by boat to La Penita village, Darién province, Panama, on May 23, 2019. LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images

The surge of migrants at the United States’ southern border has undoubtedly been a challenge for the Biden administration in its first few months in office. Vice President Kamala Harris’s recent trip to Central America—her first official mission abroad—is emblematic of the weight the White House has placed on the issue of migration. Unfortunately, however, Panama was left off the itinerary of her two-day trip, which included stops in Guatemala and Mexico. This despite the unprecedented number of migrants attempting to cross our border through a treacherous area of jungle known as the Darién Gap.

The problem of uncontrolled migration is not isolated to Texas, California, New Mexico, or Arizona. Farther south, on the Panamanian border, a parallel crisis is unfolding as unprecedented numbers of migrants from Haiti, Cuba, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East attempt to cross the Darién Gap en route to Canada and the United States. The situation here is not a uniquely North American or Panamanian problem. It is an international humanitarian crisis that knows no borders and requires immediate collaboration. Panama, for our part, looks forward to working closely with the Biden administration to formulate an effective policy response.

The Darién jungle is one of the last untapped tropical forests in the Americas, stretching more than 60 miles from eastern Panama to northern Colombia. It is so dense that it interrupts the Pan-American Highway—a road that otherwise connects the Americas from Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, to Alaska—and is considered one of the most dangerous stretches of jungle in the world. Migrants often make the journey through the area without food, water, or protection from wild animals and human and drug traffickers.

The surge of migrants at the United States’ southern border has undoubtedly been a challenge for the Biden administration in its first few months in office. Vice President Kamala Harris’s recent trip to Central America—her first official mission abroad—is emblematic of the weight the White House has placed on the issue of migration. Unfortunately, however, Panama was left off the itinerary of her two-day trip, which included stops in Guatemala and Mexico. This despite the unprecedented number of migrants attempting to cross our border through a treacherous area of jungle known as the Darién Gap.

The problem of uncontrolled migration is not isolated to Texas, California, New Mexico, or Arizona. Farther south, on the Panamanian border, a parallel crisis is unfolding as unprecedented numbers of migrants from Haiti, Cuba, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East attempt to cross the Darién Gap en route to Canada and the United States. The situation here is not a uniquely North American or Panamanian problem. It is an international humanitarian crisis that knows no borders and requires immediate collaboration. Panama, for our part, looks forward to working closely with the Biden administration to formulate an effective policy response.

The Darién jungle is one of the last untapped tropical forests in the Americas, stretching more than 60 miles from eastern Panama to northern Colombia. It is so dense that it interrupts the Pan-American Highway—a road that otherwise connects the Americas from Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, to Alaska—and is considered one of the most dangerous stretches of jungle in the world. Migrants often make the journey through the area without food, water, or protection from wild animals and human and drug traffickers.

An average of 20,000 people enter Panama by foot through the Darién Gap annually. These numbers have spiked significantly in recent years, with UNICEF reporting a fifteenfold increase in the number of children crossing the gap in the past four years. In light of this surge, Doctors Without Borders began providing medical and mental health services for arriving migrants on the Panamanian side of the crossing in May, performing more than 3,300 medical checkups and an average of 10 individual and group mental health consultations per day. Other nongovernmental organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Organization for Migration, are also collaborating with the Panamanian government to receive such a large number of people in a very small and remote area of the country.

The devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with severe weather caused by climate change and escalating violence, is doubtlessly driving migrants to leave their countries of origin—some of which are as far-flung as India, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uzbekistan, and Senegal—to pursue a better life elsewhere.

The Panamanian government agrees with the Biden administration that the long-term solution to this uncontrolled and dangerous migration lies in addressing the root causes that compel people to leave their homes. We look forward to collaborating with the United States and the countries of origin to combat violence and provide people with jobs, education, and security so they can prosper where they live. As we pursue these long-term goals, nations across the Americas must also take critical steps to address the immediate impacts of increased migration.

The nations of the Americas must work collaboratively to control the flow of migration.

First among them is strengthening visa requirements and background checks throughout Latin America. A vast number of migrants crossing the Darién started their journey in South America, arriving through ports of entry in countries where visa requirements are less strict. As a result, members of terrorist organizations and sanctioned parties have found their way into Panama, where they are not permitted to enter in the first place. Panama’s biometric identification measures have recognized and detained individuals linked to extremist groups attempting to pass through the country with migrants.

Second, the nations of the Americas must work collaboratively to control the flow of migration. Since 2016, the governments of Panama and Costa Rica have worked together to put in place a joint policy to secure safe passage of migrants through our territories based on each country’s ability to ensure migrants’ care and safety. Panama has also recently reached an information-sharing agreement with Colombia to monitor the flows of migrants headed for the Darién Gap. Currently, more than 1,000 migrants arrive in Panama every day from Colombia, and only 50 to 100 are allowed to proceed into Costa Rica.

Needless to say, the situation is untenable. This surge has deeply affected small villages in Panama near the Darién Gap, which require significant investments to deal with the increasing demand for food, water, and sanitation. These areas also must provide accommodation for groups of different social, linguistic, and religious backgrounds, as well as care for those who suffer from traumas such as rape and abuse. Just last year, Panama allocated $13 million to manage humanitarian assistance in and around the Darién.

Once migrants arrive in Panama, the country provides them with lodging, food, and medical aid in accordance with international agreements. The government operates several aid stations in the Darién to care for migrants and tend to their urgent needs. Most arrive in dire condition, either injured or ill from their journey through the jungle. Many have had their personal documents stolen, as drug traffickers take advantage of them on their route.

Left unchecked, this migrant issue will compound—and its ramifications will reach far beyond Panama’s borders. Even as Panama remains steadfast in its commitment to care for the migrants who have put themselves in our care—particularly those who are victims of human trafficking—the scale of the humanitarian crisis in our country and across the region demands international attention. We cannot single-handedly protect these migrants or address the underlying problems that have driven them into our borders. The situation will not be resolved if the international community continues to approach it as a U.S. problem or a Panama problem. In reality, it is everyone’s problem.

Going forward, the countries of the Americas need to address this issue through regional cooperation, rather than disjointed bilateral actions and blame games. We need the United States, Canada, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, Chile, and Panama to come together and foster a comprehensive approach to reducing the flow of migrants passing through the Darién Gap. We also must ensure that those migrants who continue to come are kept safe and treated with dignity.

The stories of these migrants, and the drastic measures to which they go to pursue a better future, are a sobering reminder of the stark inequalities and hardships that many face around the world. Even as we work to mitigate migration flows now, Panama looks forward to a day when no one will feel compelled to embark on life-threatening, grueling journeys to meet their most fundamental human needs of prosperity, security, and dignity.

Erika Mouynes is Panama’s minister of foreign affairs, a role she has served in since December 2020. Twitter: @ErikaMouynes

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