Newly-Elected Panamanian President Vows to Close Perilous Migration Path to US

 May 14, 2024

Panamanian President-elect José Raúl Mulino is set to close a dangerous migration route through Panama, significantly used last year by migrants aiming for the US.

As reported by Daily Mail, the perilous journey of more than 500,000 individuals through the Darien Gap—a dense jungle stretch between Colombia and Panama—will soon face rigorous restrictions, as announced by the newly elected President of Panama, José Raúl Mulino.

This decision comes in response to the increasingly organized and dangerous nature of the passage, which has been marked by soaring incidents of violence and exploitation at the hands of criminal groups.

For years, Panama had facilitated the northward journey of migrants by providing transportation across its territory. The route offered an affordable but hazardous choice for those escaping various adversities in their home countries. However, the route has been known to expose migrants to severe risks, including sexual assaults and robberies.

Organized Crime Influences on Migration

The rise in the route’s popularity is partially attributed to organized criminal groups operating in Colombia. These groups have exacerbated the dangers, luring vulnerable migrants into this lawless passageway.

This year alone, approximately 147,000 migrants have entered Panama through this notorious stretch from Colombia, a significant number despite its dangers.

The situation has been further complicated by recent visa restrictions imposed by countries such as Mexico on certain nationalities, pushing even more migrants towards these perilous overland routes. In his election campaign, Mulino promised to put an end to what he termed the "Darien odyssey" and initiate a new era of economic prosperity for Panama, winning the presidency with 34% of the vote.

Migration Policy Plan and Its Challenges

Mulino’s migration policy will take effect during his presidency starting July 1. The plan includes deporting individuals more systematically, which Mulino believes will reduce Panama's attractiveness as a transit country. "Panama and our Darien are not a transit route. It is our border," stated Mulino, emphasizing the sovereign state's stance against being merely a thoroughfare.

Despite the resolve, experts like Julio Alonso, a Panamanian security expert, acknowledge the drastic shift this policy represents. It aims to curtail deaths and prevent organized crime from exploiting the migration route. However, Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, raises concerns about the logistical feasibility of such mass deportations and the humanitarian implications of sending migrants back to precarious situations.

Deportation Logistics and Humanitarian Concerns

Isacson pointed out, "A daily plane, which would be extremely expensive, would only repatriate around 10 percent of the flow (about 1,000 to 1,200 per day)." This does not cover the massive scale of the migration through the Darien Gap, suggesting that significant challenges lie ahead for the enforcement of this policy.

Closing the Darien route could also lead migrants to seek even more dangerous alternatives, such as maritime routes, which are known for their own risks. The planned closures could inadvertently push desperate individuals into more dangerous journeys.

Officials from the UN's International Organization for Immigration, including Giuseppe Loprete, have expressed readiness to engage with Mulino’s administration to discuss the specifics of the policy. Loprete emphasized that when legal routes are inaccessible, "migrants run the risk of turning to criminal networks, traffickers and dangerous routes, tricked by disinformation."

Looking Toward a Sustainable Migration Policy

The international community continues to watch closely, hoping for a balance between stringent border policies and humanitarian needs. As Panama prepares to enforce these new migration policies, the global dialogue on migration and human rights seems more pertinent than ever. The ongoing developments signify a major turning point for Panama’s migration management, potentially setting a precedent for the region.

In conclusion, Panama’s move to shut down a major migration route through the Darien Gap marks a significant policy shift. This decision by President-elect José Raúl Mulino aims to curb illegal migration and protect migrants from exploitation and harm. However, this policy's effectiveness and humanitarian impact remain to be seen, as alternative routes may pose additional risks, and logistical challenges loom large.

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