Panama City, Panama, December 9, 2021 — With more than 124,000 displaced people having crossed the Darien Gap—a jungle area at the border between Colombia and Panama—since January 2021, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) calls for international cooperation to respond to critical needs identified during a recent scoping mission.
Meghan Lopez, Regional Vice President for Latin America at the IRC, said:
“The current situation at the Darien Gap is a symptom of humanitarian crises in Latin America— and even other continents—that are reaching scales never seen before. The region has had a historical role in migration routes from all over the world, which now are used as escape valves in the face of new and growing crises. It is critical to respond to such crises, providing people with options to find safety at home as well as enroute or destination as needed. To achieve this, it is necessary to develop a comprehensive and regional response that incorporates a humanitarian approach—supported by international funding, not just local funding—to address the root drivers of migration in the countries of origin and deliver protection services along the way.”
The IRC’s research was based on interviews with local stakeholders, including community leaders, and incorporating data from institutions like Panama’s National Migration Service. As part of the data collected, the IRC identified the main nationalities of people who had crossed between January and November 2021:
- 64% were Haitians, most of whom had previously sought safety in Brazil and Chile.
- 11% were Cubans.
- 8% were described as Chileans and 7% as Brazilians, most of them children of Haitian asylum seekers.
Although Panama is taking measures, and certain organizations are currently delivering aid, the scale of the crisis has put pressure on the capacity to respond. Among different needs, the IRC identified three that are critical:
- Strengthening of local systems capacity through a humanitarian approach. It is necessary to continue supporting local systems—including government agencies and local organizations—through a protection-centered approach and technical capacity sharing on international protection standards. This approach would enable the design of programming that evolves from a border security framework to an integrated humanitarian response that meets the needs of the most vulnerable, including case management for unaccompanied children.
- Delivery of aid to cover basic needs. People on the move lack access to critical services—including food, medication, shelter, safe water, sanitation facilities and more. By delivering aid through multisectoral collaboration, considering the incorporation of multipurpose vouchers, asylum seekers can be empowered with resources to purchase items tailored to their priority needs, while contributing to the economy of the places where they are located.
- Access to critical information. People forced to displace reported experiencing difficulties to access accurate and reliable information in key decision-making moments, both at places of origin and along the route. They need access to accurate sources of information on aspects like protection risks or available services, as well as connectivity alternatives (internet and phone services); however, there is no organization currently providing information services at this scale. The lack of access to official information services leads them to rely on often unreliable third parties, including human traffickers, increasing the risk of being guided to illegal border crossings and exacerbating their vulnerability.
More about the crisis at the Darien Gap
Migration pathways through Latin America have existed for decades if not centuries, but have recently become increasingly traveled, politicized and dangerous. One of the most daunting pathways is the Darien Gap—located at the border between Panama and Colombia—which used to be crossed by 10,000 to 20,000 people every year. In 2021, however, there has been an exponential increase, with more than 124,000 people having crossed the jungle by November.
Multiple factors and deteriorating living conditions—including the triple threat of COVID-19, conflict and climate change—have driven the increase in the number of people forced to displace. Among the population found at the Darien Gap, the IRC identified as the main reasons:
- Stricter immigration policies in South American countries. These policies affected mainly Haitians that had sought safety in Brazil and Chile after the 2010 earthquake.
- Persistent racism and xenophobia. In the first countries where they sought safety, Haitians have been subjected to widespread racial and gender-based discrimination, coupled with language barriers.
- Re-opening of international borders. The relaxation of border restrictions in early 2021 enabled families to embark on their path northbound.
- Misinformation about the TPS for Haitians in the US. People thought this protection mechanism would apply to those living outside the US, caused by misinformation based on word-of-mouth rumors.
- Socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19. The economy stagnated during the pandemic, driving up high levels of unemployment, especially for people working in the informal sector.
Further details of the IRC’s research can be shared upon request by reaching out to [email protected]