US and Panama join forces to stop migration: From barbed wire in the jungle to mass repatriation

Under a new agreement between the two countries that will take effect in the coming weeks, Washington will begin financing flights to return thousands of migrants headed north back to their countries of origin

Migrants crossing the Darién Gap from Colombia to Panama
Migrants crossing the Darién Gap from Colombia to Panama on May 9, 2023.Ivan Valencia (AP)

Trump’s wall was never built, but a continental obstacle course was. The U.S. government maintains its efforts to stop the immigration crisis on its southern border, one of the key issues on Joe Biden’s path to re-election at 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 administration has signed an agreement with the newly elected Panamanian president, José Raúl Mulino. The agreement aims to stop migratory flows through the Darién jungle, a route that half a million migrants took in 2023 alone. Although the exact start date is unknown, in the coming weeks the United States will begin to cover the costs of the deportations to their respective countries of the thousands of people who cross Central America every day, something that some doubt can be carried out.

On July 1, the Panamanian Foreign Minister, Javier Martínez-Acha, and the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, signed an arrangement that launches a “new foreign assistance program” financed by the U.S. State Department to confront irregular migration. This is one of the objectives of the so-called Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, signed in June 2022, which aims to “promote humane migration management” throughout the American continent.

In a statement, the U.S. government assured that the agreement with Panama includes support for migrant repatriation operations from that country, and insists that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will support training and capacity building to strengthen and institutionalize “safe and humane” repatriation in that country. “Irregular migration is a regional challenge that requires a regional response,” Mayorkas said. “As the United States continues to secure our borders and remove individuals without a legal basis to remain, we are grateful for our partnership with Panama to manage the historic levels of migration across the Western Hemisphere.”

Meanwhile, the office of José Raúl Mulino, who visited Darién a few days before taking office as president in early July, reported that this agreement “will allow closing 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, and death by disease.

Although the repatriation flights do not have a start date, Panama has already begun its efforts to detain migrants arriving from the natural border with Colombia. Recently, it was learned that barbed wire has 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 at the national border service has begun to block the majority of border passages” since June 27. Authorities said migrants must present identification documents at a crossing that will remain open.

El presidente electo de Panamá, José Raúl Mulino, en la Estación de Recepción de Migrantes en Lajas Blancas, provincia de Darién, Panamá, el 28 de junio.
Panama's president-elect, José Raúl Mulino, at the Migrant Reception Station in Lajas Blancas, Darién province, Panama, on June 28.Aris Martinez (REUTERS)

The United States, however, has distanced itself from this initiative and said that it is not involved in the new barbed wire barriers, which are very dangerous for the migrants who continue to risk traveling the route through the Central American jungle. A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council told NBC News that “the U.S. has not provided support to the Government of Panama to erect barriers at its borders,” despite the recently signed agreement to deal with waves of migrants crossing through Panama, mostly from 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 for Programs at the American human rights organization WOLA, told the German media 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 jungle, 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 are hoping that the threat of deportation will deter many immigrants,” she says. “History shows us the opposite: policies focused on deterrence do not have a lasting impact on migratory flows, but they do impact the security and well-being of migrants.”

The Senior Manager for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, Diego Cháves, has 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 will accept them back. “The capacity of the Panamanian Government to create an effective repatriation strategy is null. It is going to take a long time to build the necessary infrastructure in a place like Darién,” he said. Chávez 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 illegal arrivals in the U.S. are down by 40% since he implemented his new immigration policy restricting daily asylum processing at the southern border. Likewise, the Department of Homeland Security told 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, a 30% drop from 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 over the past three fiscal years resulted in an expulsion, return or transfer,” they said in a statement.

Like Biden, Panama’s president has the issue of migration on his table. In his inauguration speech, Mulino emphasized that Panama will no longer be a transit country for illegal migrants. “I will not allow Panama to be a path open to thousands of people who enter our country illegally, supported by an entire international organization with ties to drug trafficking and human smuggling. 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 accordingly, with strict respect for human rights and adherence to the defense of the interests of our country.”

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