Human Rights Watch: U.S. policy is fueling migration through the dangerous Darién Gap

The policies of the United States and other governments across the Western Hemisphere to reduce the flow of migrants are instead fueling the historic levels of people moving through a dangerous jungle between Panama and Colombia, according to a report released this week by a prominent human-rights organization.

The investigation “suggests that restrictions on movement from South American countries to Mexico and Central America, often promoted by the United States government, have contributed—in combination with an increase in migration from South America to the United States—to sharp increases in numbers of people crossing the Darién Gap, exposing them to abuses, including sexual violence, and empowering organized crime in the area,” reads the new Human Rights Watch report released Thursday.

The report comes as the U.S., Mexico, and other governments try to reduce irregular immigration through agreements, visa restrictions, travel fees and new legal pathways. But Human Rights Watch concluded that these policies have actually caused the migration spikes, and that regional governments must help migrants integrate into their work forces and societies and enact measures that don’t drive them to take dangerous routes northwards.

“What is happening in the Darién Gap is the result of a range of failed policies across the hemisphere—and the urgent need for a rights-respecting response to protect people fleeing human rights crises in the region,” the report says.

A record breaking 408,972 people crossed the Darién Gap between January and September of this year, according to the data from the Panamanian government. The treacherous jungle is where many migrants begin their journey towards the United States, facing the threat of organized crime, dangerous animals and hazardous wilderness along the way. Venezuelans have made up over half the crossers in 2023, followed by Ecuadorians and Haitians.

The Americas Director for Human Rights Watch, Juanita Goebertus, said during a Thursday morning press conference that after Mexico and other countries enacted visa requirements for Venezuelans and Ecuadoreans, more people had undertaken the dangerous Darién journey. The group also found a similar result after the creation of a Biden administration parole program that allows Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans to live and work in the U.S. for two years. The number of Venezuelan crossers went down after it was first rolled out, but as migrants realized they needed financial sponsors and passports to join the program, it shot back up, their analysis concluded.

“Policies intended for Mexico and Central America to stop migrants along the way, they have not managed to prevent the migratory flow and on the contrary, what they have done is send people to a more dangerous route,” said Goebertus.

In April the U.S., Panama and Colombia announced a 60-day mission to end the movement of migrants and drugs in the Darien, boost the economies and reduce the poverty of the jungle’s border towns, and create new legal pathways for migration. But experts have criticized the attempts to shut down the migration route.

Human Rights Watch also recorded stories of disappearances and deaths, including cases where children appeared to have drowned during dangerous river crossings. The report also details the extreme violence that migrants face at the hands of gangs and criminals, including widespread sexual assault and armed robberies. The Gulf Clan, a Colombian drug cartel, controls the routes, forcing migrants to pay to go through the jungle and extorting guides, according to the investigation.

“Two people who help migrants and asylum seekers... told Human Rights Watch that Gulf Clan members summoned them to a meeting in March 2022 and told them to take migrants and asylum seekers to boat companies that operate unlawfully. These boats often travel parallel to boats carrying cocaine. When the Navy intervenes, the boatmen throw the migrants and asylum seekers into the sea and flee,” the report says.

The group issued several recommendations to Latin American and Caribbean governments, including strengthening asylum systems, expanding the reasons to grant asylum, reversing visa requirements, and helping migrants enter work forces and integrate into societies.

It also offered specific guidance for the United States, such as expanding the parole program for Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua and Cuba to other countries like Ecuador, and removing requirements such as the need for passports so more people can access it; increasing the quota of refugee admissions from Latin America and the Caribbean; and desisting from asking other countries to create new visa requirements.

“United States policy cannot be focused on stopping migrants along the way. It should be focused on investing in the regularization and socioeconomic integration of migrants in Latin America,” said Goebertus.

She also criticized U.S. deportations of Haitians and Venezuelans back to their home countries, saying it was “contrary to the rules of international law.” Human Rights Watch urged for a regional, temporary legal status for Haitians and Venezuelans even if they don’t qualify to become refugees, as well as for the U.S. government to continue renewing and expanding Temporary Protected Status for people from the two countries.

During the 18-month investigation, the researchers visited the Darien Gap on both the Colombian and Panamanian sides, as well as the border between Panama and Costa Rica. They also conducted nearly 300 interviews with migrants, humanitarian workers, and others, as well as analyzed government migration data.

Juan Pappier, Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Americas, said the group had shared its findings with State Department officials, members of Congress, the Colombia ambassador to the U.S., and the Secretary General of the Organization of American States. The investigation is the first of a series Human Rights Watch will publish about the Darien Gap.

You can read the report in English here. You can read the report in Spanish here.