The United States and Panama join forces to stop migration: from barbed wire in the Darien jungle to mass repatriation

The United States and Panama join forces to stop migration: from barbed wire in the Darien jungle to mass repatriation
The United States and Panama join forces to stop migration: from barbed wire in the Darien jungle to mass repatriation

Trump’s wall was never built, but a continental obstacle course was. The Joe Biden administration is continuing its efforts to stop the migration crisis on the southern border, one of the key issues on its path to re-election in the presidential elections next November. In addition to the restrictions on asylum applications announced in June and greater collaboration with Mexico, which has been detaining migrants at record levels for weeks, the Democratic government in Washington has signed an agreement with the newly elected Panamanian president, José Raúl Mulino. The agreement aims to stop migratory flows through the Darien jungle, a route that half a million migrants took in 2023 alone. Although the exact start date is unknown, starting in the next few weeks the United States will begin to cover the costs of deporting thousands of people who cross Central America every day to their respective countries, something that some doubt can be carried out.

On July 1, Panamanian Foreign Minister Javier Martínez-Acha and the United States Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, signed the agreement that launches a “new foreign assistance program” funded by the United States Department of State to address irregular migration. This is part of the fulfillment of the objectives of the so-called Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, signed in June 2022, which aims to “humanely manage borders throughout the American continent.”

In a statement, the U.S. government said the agreement includes support for migrant repatriation operations from Panama, and insists that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will support training and capacity building to strengthen and institutionalize “safe and humane” repatriation processes in that country. “Irregular migration is a regional challenge that requires a regional response,” Mayorkas said. “We are grateful for our partnership with Panama to manage historic levels of migration across the Western Hemisphere.”

For his part, the office of José Raúl Mulino, who visited Darién days before taking office as president at the beginning of July, announced that this agreement “will allow us to close the passage of illegal immigrants through Darién, an issue that has become a serious humanitarian crisis.” Since January of this year, more than 195,000 migrants have crossed the jungle, one of the most dangerous routes to reach the United States, where many people end up being victims of kidnappings, robberies, attacks by wild animals, accidents, illnesses and even death.

Although repatriation flights have not been scheduled, Panama has already begun its efforts to stop migrants arriving from the natural border with Colombia. Recently, it was learned that barbed wire barriers have been installed along the Darien Gap, which would supposedly manage the migratory flow and prevent organized crime in the area. The Panamanian Ministry of Public Security announced that “the patrol in the national border service has begun to block most border crossings” since June 27. Authorities said that migrants will have to present identification documents at one crossing that will remain open.

Panamanian President-elect Jose Raul Mulino at the Migrant Reception Station in Lajas Blancas, Darien province, Panama, June 28.Aris Martinez (REUTERS)

The United States, however, has distanced itself and said it is not involved in the new barbed wire barriers, which are also very dangerous for migrants, who still risk traveling the route through the Central American jungle. A spokesman for the White House National Security Council told NBC News that “the United States has not provided support to the Government of Panama to erect barriers on its borders,” despite the recently signed agreement to deal with the waves of migrants coming mainly from countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Haiti, Colombia and China.

The new agreement between the two countries has created skepticism among some who think it will be almost impossible to implement. Maureen Meyer, Vice President of Programs at the American human rights organization WOLA, told German outlet DW that she does not believe that even a powerful country like the United States can return the many people who cross the Darien, and that the country can only repatriate between 500 and 600 people by air per day. “Without a massive investment of funds and the development of the necessary infrastructure, it is difficult to imagine a significant impact of the agreement. Governments hope that the threat of deportation will deter many migrants,” she said. “History shows us the opposite: policies focused on deterrence do not have a lasting impact on migration flows, but they do impact the security and well-being of migrants.”

Diego Chavez, Senior Manager for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, shares the same opinion. He also told DW that “logistically, socially and politically, it is a very difficult measure to implement.” Not only is the infrastructure of a country like Panama limited, he said, but it would also be necessary to take into account whether the migrants’ countries of origin would accept them back. “The Panamanian government’s capacity to create an effective repatriation strategy is zero. It will take a long time to build the necessary infrastructure in a place like Darien,” he said. Chavez also insists that the influx of so many migrants in Panama City “could generate tension” among Panamanians.

Migration, the big issue on the table for Mulino and Biden

In the first face-to-face debate with Donald Trump, Biden boasted that 40% fewer people are arriving illegally in the United States since he implemented his new immigration policy that restricts daily asylum processing at the southern border. Likewise, the Department of Homeland Security declared to NBC News that June was the month with the fewest migrant arrests since Biden arrived at the White House. Just over 84,000 migrants arrived in the country last month, 30% less than in May, when the number of arrests was just over 117,000. Likewise, DHS assured that it has operated more than 120 international repatriation flights to more than 20 countries. “The majority of all encounters at the southwest border during the last three fiscal years resulted in an expulsion, return, or transfer,” they said in a statement.

Like Biden, Mulino has the migration phenomenon on the table, a contentious issue that they know connects perfectly with voters. In his inaugural speech, the Panamanian president emphasized that Panama will no longer be a transit country for illegal migrants. “I will not allow Panama to be an open path for thousands of people who enter our country illegally, supported by an entire international organization related to drug trafficking and human trafficking. That money, the product of profiting from human misfortune, is cursed money,” he said. “I will not allow local complicity. I ask our security forces to apply the law as appropriate, with strict respect for Human Rights and adherence to the defense of the interests of our country.”

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