The International Community Is Failing the Human Rights of Forced Migrants Crossing the Deadly Darien Gap

Natalia Cintra

Research Fellow, University of Southhampton

Pía Riggirozzi

Professor and Head of the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Southhampton

13 November 2023   |  #23.08 |    The views expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and may not reflect those of UNU-CRIS. 

It was an unbearably hot day in late July 2023 when we arrived at Lajas Blancas, a Migratory Reception Centre located in the Panamanian region of the Darién, on the banks of the river Chucunaque, where thousands of migrants arrive each day after crossing, in small wooden boats and by foot, one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes. Darién is an area of more than 500,000 hectares of rainforest, steep mountains, and vast swamps that separates Colombia from Panama. As we delved deeper into the reception centre, thousands of people gathered in queues, trying to get something to eat, clothing and some rest in rarely available shaded spaces. They stay there for days or weeks until they find a way to continue their journeys to Costa Rica and northward to the final destination, the United States; a journey that can take up to 3 months.

According to UNHCR, a record 248,000 migrants crossed the Darién Gap in 2022, most of them fleeing hunger, poverty, and violence from Venezuela (55%), Haiti (14%), Ecuador (14%) and more recently from China. By January 2023, there was a seven-fold increase. The reduction in visa granting, together with restrictive immigration policies across the region, have forced migrants to seek alternative, more dangerous routes.

As we spoke to several migrants, they tell a common story of conditions in their home country that became intolerable and left them with no reasonable alternative other than to flee due to reasons of physical insecurity, loss of shelter and livelihood, or because their ability to care for themselves and their families were radically undermined. Pursuing a better future is a struggle for survival, including crossing the Darién. Almost all arrive at Lajas Blancas, the temporary Migration Reception Centre, with no shoes, few or no clothes, wounded and ill, and in need of urgent medical assistance and immediate humanitarian support, particularly women and girls, who are at an extremely high risk of sexual violence and trafficking. They are in desperate need of protection for their right to live lives with dignity.

The denial of rights and victimhood

Panama is ‘the bridge of the world’ for its impressive maritime and air connectivity. The Darién is, however, a long and dense jungle area that connects South and Central America. Yet an almost impossible crossing that became the route of last resort for many forced to leave their country and enter a migration process because of violence, poverty, food deprivation and hunger, gender violence and ill-health.

All the way from Colombia to Panama, migrants pay 'coyotes' to cross the jungle, with the poorest migrants taking longer, more dangerous pathways and reinforcing a cycle of dispossession. In other words, how much they can pay determines the distance, the route, the exposure to risk, where they arrive once they have crossed, and when they would continue their journey.

Despite increasing reports of human rights violations in such routes, the response in the Darién is minimal, with few governmental programmes available and a significant dependency on humanitarian aid from organisations such as Médicins Sans Frontiéres and UN agencies.

Upon arrival at Lajas Blancas, the scenario is highly militarised. Alongside the extremely hot temperatures and poor sanitation, it makes the place seem rather inhospitable and unsafe. The first contact is with military staff from SENAFRONT and the Panamanian National Migration Service. Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and other NGOs and UN agencies are also present, all located after initial checkpoints by the Panamanian authorities. With mandatory registration, migrants are forced to stand in long lines, without exception, even for those with ill health, carrying a baby or caring for family members with disabilities.

Migrants show visible signs of physical and mental exhaustion, wounds in feet and legs due to insect bites, lacerations on legs and arms, fever, diarrhoea, vomiting, dehydration and malnutrition, as well as psychological disorders. But arriving demands a focused effort to understand confusing space organisation and to identify points of assistance and help, as well as available places for rest and overnight stay, and how and where to board (paid) transportation that will take them from that Reception Centre to the border with Costa Rica, and beyond. There are other  (unregulated) private businesses that offer services of various kinds, such as telephone, transportation, food, and monetary transfers, among others, which add up to the chaotic environment in these centres. The constant need to pay for every step of the way, and to a large extent for essential resources, has led to the creation of a subsistence economy in which everything is bought and sold: food, clothing, cigarettes, sending money, renting tents; and even the body.

On 19th September 2023, at the 78th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, Panamá’s President Laurentino Cortizo Cohen declared, “This is an unsustainable situation…in which we are victims and not responsible.” To be clear, forcibly migrants crossing the Darien have been victimised precisely because of violent and destructive denial of rights, protection and even humanity before, during and after crossing.

Shared responsibility for the human rights of forced migrants

Situations of mass displacement of the kind seen crossing the Darien raise important questions about states’ responsibility to protect. During the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration in Brazil, Panama and other Latin American countries unanimously adopted the Action Plan to protect the human rights of persecuted and displaced people at the national and regional levels. A decade later, Panamá’s Director of the Migratory agency, Samira Gozaine, stated that Panamá is now in the process of subcontracting charter flights to “deport or expel the greatest number of people” irregularly arriving by air, sea or land, something that not only contradicts Cartagena’s duties towards refugees within the region, but directly contravenes international law against nonrefoulement. 

A polarised approach to irregular migration management not only risks undermining and weakening national and international law, but also diverts attention from a collaborative approach to respond and protect the lives and rights of refugees and forced migrants in vulnerable situations.

The dramatic number of people crossing through the Darién highlights the urgent need to strengthen protection systems, emergency responses, and find durable solutions, all of which entail, as we argue, five principles that underline a human rights based approach to shared responsibility in international migration governance, that is:

  1. responsibility to expand regular routes for refugees and migrants and to guarantee safe passage: This demands the duty of protection and of cooperation amongst states to offer direct and safe passage across borders and as a potential place of first refuge. This also means keeping borders open to forcibly displaced, without preventing or obstructing safe access to a territory to claim protection. Regional and multilateral organisations such as UNHCR and IOM can provide communication, financial and technical support, and advocacy to ensure direct and safe passage.
  2. responsibility to provide protection: This falls on all states to whom forcibly displaced migrants travel to/through. This involves providing safety, including the duty of non-refoulement and protection in place, such as the provision of safe housing facilities, as well as the right to access healthcare, a fair and impartial process of status determination, and access to identity documents.  UNHCR and financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank are key for ring-fencing funding for preparedness, mechanisms for cross-border exchange of information and cooperation, and social protection of people in displacement.
  3. responsibility to provide safe mobility in the context of prolonged transit: this means allowing safe movement in and between the states of the region, which not only denotes providing mobility rights as they move within and across states, but primarily means having an approach that is centred on protection from abuses ranging from exploitation to trafficking and beyond.
  4. responsibility to provide social integration, enabling the legitimate interests of those who are forcibly displaced to determine where they settle and having access to the basic conditions for rebuilding their lives in community with others. The basic requirements of this responsibility can be expressed as the provision of access to housing, health and welfare systems; access to opportunities for education, training or employment to enable them to make effective choices and plans about their lives, where this also involves active participation in the social and political community of the locality in which they are situated.
  5. responsibilities to provide adequate resources for protection, when and where funding for protection falls short of what is required to safeguard protection. This is a call for global partnerships and cooperation for development by mobilising resources, sharing knowledge, and building capacity in accordance with international governance agendas such as the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and Refugees, and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Given the perilous journey north through the dense Darien jungle and, more fundamentally, the human rights of people in displacement, these principles call for urgent consideration of visa-free air and/or sea travel so that forcibly displaced people can safely reach a place of first refuge, the non-criminalisation of those that enter the country through irregular pathways, and providing protection as a duty to ensure human rights of all. For it to happen, Panamá and countries of origin and transit should recognise their legal and moral responsibilities towards migrants.