Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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Darién Gap

Denying the right to asylum led to fewer asylum seekers transiting Panama’s Darién Gap

Panama just posted November records of migration through the dangerous Darién Gap jungles that straddle its border with Colombia. The result is unsurprising. They show that denying protection to people, even as it violates international human rights standards, will keep them from trying to come, at least in the short term.

Migration through the Darién plummeted 72 percent from October to November. This was led by a 98 percent drop in migration from Venezuela.

That fewer people risked crossing through the Darién Gap should be good news: hundreds each year die, are attacked, and suffer sexual violence along this ungoverned 60-mile walk. But the reason for the decline is not a happy one.

On October 12, the U.S. and Mexican governments announced that any Venezuelan citizens encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border would be swiftly expelled back into Mexico, without even affording them the chance to seek asylum. That denial of asylum is usually illegal, but the U.S. government invoked the Title 42 pandemic authority, in place since March 2020. On November 15, a U.S. federal judge struck down Title 42, so the expulsions should stop by December 21.

For now, though, the Title 42 expansion forced a pause in U.S.-bound migration through the Darién Gap. For unclear reasons, November also saw declines in migration of citizens from Peru (-92%), Colombia (-87%), Cameroon (-44%), Afghanistan (-31%), the Dominican Republic (-30%), and Ecuador (-25%). Other countries increased, though: Nigeria (+56%), China (+38%), Haiti (+24%), India (+20), and Bangladesh (+18%).

Despite the November decline, 2022 is already the busiest year for migration in the history of the Darién Gap, which until recently was viewed as nearly impenetrable.

Darién Gap: 1,606 migrants per day

Panama just posted data about migration through the treacherous, ungoverned Darién Gap jungles that straddle eastern Panama and northwestern Colombia. Once regarded as an impenetrable barrier, this region of old-growth jungle is becoming a superhighway.

The data are mind-boggling. 1,606 migrants per day walked through the Darién in September. 1,280 were citizens of Venezuela, who have begun migrating in large numbers to the United States.

The chart below shows migration through the Darién Gap over the past 13 years. 2021’s record number of Haitian migrants, which seemed unthinkable at the time, has been surpassed by the exodus of 107,692 Venezuelans in 9 months. (Only 219 Venezuelans walked the Darién in all 11 years from 2010 to 2020.)

6.8 million Venezuelans (out of about 30 million) have left their country since the mid-2010s. Many of those coming through the Darién have already lived for years elsewhere in South America, and they’re giving up on trying to survive there.

There is potential for this exodus of Venezuelan migrants to multiply still further in the Darién. This has quickly become the number-one displacement and migration challenge in the hemisphere.

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