Analysis-Panama deportations unlikely to be enough to curb Darien crossings

FILE PHOTO: Panama's President-elect Juan Raul Mulino visits migrant camp, in Lajas Blancas

By Elida Moreno and Lizbeth Diaz

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) -An agreement between Panama and the United States to try to deter migrants from crossing the treacherous Darien jungle, by repatriating those that enter the Central American country illegally, is unlikely to succeed and could make journeys even more dangerous.

Analysts said the plan announced on Monday, in which Washington agreed to cover the cost of repatriating migrants, would struggle in the face of the vast numbers of people currently arriving in Panama.

And any success in bringing down the number of people crossing the Darien would likely only result in increases elsewhere, perhaps in even more dangerous conditions, they added.

Panama's presidency and the U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Last year a record 520,000 migrants crossed the Darien, a stretch of jungle that divides Panama and Colombia where people who trek on foot for days often face robbery, violence, human trafficking and sexual abuse.

In recent years, the majority of migrants have been from Venezuela and other South American countries, such as Ecuador, facing internal strife. There have also been increasing numbers from outside Latin America, including from China, Afghanistan, and other countries.

Those passing through the Darien, authorities say, are mostly attempting to reach the United States. The record numbers have prompted Panamanian authorities to seek international help and harden their border security, though numbers have kept rising.

Immigration is a core election issue ahead of the November U.S. presidential election, with President Joe Biden eager to show voters he can control illegal crossings at the southern U.S. border.

He has pointed to a recent fall in apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border as evidence his policies, including a broad asylum ban on migrants caught crossing illegally, are working.

It seems unlikely, however, that Panama could organize enough repatriation flights to make a difference.

"Even the equivalent of one plane per day (100-150 people) would mean that between 85% and 90% of immigrants would avoid deportation and could continue their journey," said Adam Isacson, of the Washington Office on Latin American Affairs think tank.

"And the chance of 'one plane per day' happening is super-slim. These flights are expensive... I wouldn't expect there to be enough funds to run more than two or three flights per week at the most," Isacson added.

Eric Jacobstein, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, told reporters the U.S. had allocated $6 million to help with the program.

A senior Biden administration official told Reuters on Wednesday the initiative should be viewed as a pilot program that could be expanded if successful and even rolled out to other countries.

The U.S.plans to evaluate its effectiveness over the next six months, the official said on condition of anonymity.

"We view this as seed funding that will help them start up their own repatriation program," they said. “It is a pilot program to start but something that we would have every expectation of wanting to continue if the results are what we expect they will be.”

Previous attempts by Panama have also failed. In September, the country announced new measures to reduce the number of people coming through the Darien, vowing to increase deportations and change visa rules for many nationalities.

But the measures appear to have had little impact.

It remains to be seen whether with a new president in office, Panama's latest deal with the U.S. can have more concrete results. President Jose Raul Mulino announced the new deportation flights during his inauguration, suggesting they are a core part of his government's policy.

Guillermo Cochez, a former Panamanian ambassador to the Organization of American States, said he was hopeful the new measures could work.

"I think it will have a positive impact," he said.

"These repatriations, which in principle will take 100 or 150 people, will discourage others (from crossing)" Cochez said.

Others noted, however, that even if it does help deter migrants from coming through the Darien, it is unlikely to have a long-term impact on how many people are reaching the southern border of the U.S.

"The new announcement... is not going to stop the migratory flow but, on the contrary, is going to take it to more dangerous routes," said Israel Ibarra, a migration expert at Mexico's College of the Northern Border research institute.

Ibarra said some migrants were, for example, already avoiding the Darien by paying to be taken on ill-equipped boats through the Caribbean, via the Colombian island of San Andres and Nicaragua's Corn Island.

A Reuters investigation also found migrants are increasingly turning to charter flights to fly into Nicaragua and El Salvador.

"Those who could benefit the most, as always, are the members of criminal groups that are going to increase the costs of human trafficking," Ibarra said.

(Reporting by Elida Moreno in Panama City, Lizbeth Diaz and Diego Ore in Mexico City, Mica Rosenberg in New York, and Ted Hesson in Washington, editing by Stephen Eisenhammer and Alistair Bell)