Record number of migrants crossed Colombia-Panama border

According to the U.N. nearly one in four people who undertook the hazardous journey across the Darien in 2023 were children.

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FILE PHOTO: Migrants heading to the U.S. wait at the Migrants Reception Station in Lajas Blancas, Darien province, Panama, September 23, 2023. REUTERS/Aris Martinez/File Photo

In 2023, an unprecedented half a million individuals migrated north through the perilous Darien Gap, a dense jungle area between Colombia and Panama, more than twice the figure from the previous year, signalling an escalating humanitarian crisis, as recently reported by the United Nations.

A significant number of these migrants, compelled by factors like poverty, crime, or discrimination, intend to seek asylum in the U.S. or Canada, even though reaching their destination is uncertain.

The U.N. highlighted that nearly one in four people who undertook the hazardous journey across the Darien in 2023 were children.

This surge has raised concerns among aid groups, emphasizing the grim conditions in the countries people are fleeing. The journey, traversing roadless jungle, crossing swollen rivers, and navigating thick foliage, takes seven to 10 days. Children often arrive at UNICEF’s support centers dehydrated, with infectious diseases and skin rashes. Some minors arrive alone, separated from their parents during the journey, making them vulnerable to exploitation and child labour.

Adults face various dangers, including violence, robbery, human trafficking, extortion, and abduction by criminal gangs, as highlighted by the U.N. One in four individuals they assisted travelled with survivors of physical, psychological, or sexual violence, with 23% reporting abuse during the journey.

While the majority of migrants crossing the Darien come from Venezuela, Haiti, Ecuador, and other Central and South American countries, some originate from as far away as sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, according to the U.N.

Migration north has surged for various reasons, including expanding criminal gang activity in Ecuador, protests and violence in Haiti, where over 50% of the population lives below the poverty line, and rampant inflation in Venezuela. Climate change has also played a role, intensifying hurricanes and extending their impact inland, compelling more people to leave.

The increase in migration across the Darien Gap is mirrored in a rise at the U.S. border and, subsequently, in cities like New York. In October, Mayor Eric Adams visited the Darien Gap to discourage further migration.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported over 2.4 million apprehensions along its southwest land border in the past fiscal year. Monthly crossings peaked in September at over 269,000 but decreased to 240,988 in October.

In May, the U.S. government reverted to pre-pandemic rules, with some stricter regulations, for individuals seeking asylum who crossed the border illegally. The Department of Homeland Security reported the removal or return of 355,000 individuals between May and October.

In the midst of a surge in unlawful border crossings, President Joe Biden is seeking to pass a bill encompassing both border security funding and a military aid package for Ukraine and Israel. Republicans are advocating for border policy changes, including heightened security measures, as a condition for approving substantial funds for Ukraine, exerting pressure on Biden to engage in negotiations.

The Biden Administration has attributed the challenges to Congress’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform, asserting in September that it is utilizing “limited tools” to address the situation. These efforts include deploying military personnel to the border, expanding detention facilities, expediting deportations, hastening work authorization for asylum seekers, and extending temporary protection for some individuals.

In October, the administration proceeded with the construction of another segment of the border wall in Texas. During a White House press meeting, Biden clarified that the funding for this was previously allocated, emphasizing his attempts to redirect Congress’s funds.

The International Organization for Migration and UNHCR have underlined the need for a comprehensive regional approach to address the “failing” global immigration system. Both organizations criticized governments cracking down on asylum seekers, asserting that such actions often violate human rights and lead to riskier migration.

They proposed investing in development to address the root causes of migration, supporting countries along migration routes that host a disproportionate number of asylum seekers, and expanding legal migration options in wealthy destination countries to prevent more dangerous criminal alternatives.

Migrants, especially children, must be protected, and transit countries should integrate migrants by issuing them documentation, arguing that failing to do so can push people into criminality.

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