Darién National Park in Panama. CREDIT: Harvey Barrison. (CC)

Darién National Park, Panama. CREDIT: Harvey Barrison. (CC)

May 28, 2024 Article

Addressing the Human Tragedy in the Darién Gap: A Call for Innovative Solutions

For over two years, the Western Hemisphere has been grappling with an unprecedented challenge: the relentless flow of mixed migration. Amidst the myriad reasons compelling people to flee their homes, a common thread emerges—a perilous journey through the Darién Gap, a 60-mile stretch of unforgiving jungle between Colombia and Panama. The statistics are staggering: over 900,000 people traversed this treacherous terrain from 2021 to 2023, and 110,000 have already been documented in 2024, a 14 percent increase compared to the same period last year. Various interagency approaches in the region have prioritized finding ways to lower the volume of people on the move. But as these deterrence efforts fail to address the root causes of this current migration flow, they miss the mark on a rights-based approach.

And despite the regional efforts via the Los Angeles Declaration of 2022 to address this hemispheric phenomenon, gaps in protection persist in regards to safeguarding the rights of migrants and asylum seekers trekking towards safety. In this environment, the Model International Mobility Convention (MIMC) offers a forward-thinking framework that is designed to better fit the complex needs of modern-day issues surrounding migration and mobility. It proposes a robust set of mechanisms to catalyze regional commitments—such as those endorsed in the Los Angeles Declaration—into action while maintaining accountability to affected people as one of the principal pillars.

The Council on Foreign Relations’ “Crossing the Darién Gap” report sheds light on the complex drivers behind this migration route, revealing a diverse mosaic of migrants from Venezuela, Ecuador, Haiti, and even from as far as Angola, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. However, despite an era marked by burgeoning diversity in migrants' countries of origin, the United States unmistakably remains the paramount destination for the majority of those traversing the northbound route, seeking safety and new opportunities. According to the UN Refugee Agency's Protection Monitoring report in the region, 91 percent of interviewees indicated that they intend to travel to the United States. As these individuals brave the jungle, they face not only natural hazards but also human-made dangers orchestrated by armed groups.

According to Human Rights Watch, current regional efforts to guarantee access to basic needs such as food, water, and essential healthcare services have proven to be inadequate, affecting the basic rights of both migrants and local communities. Furthermore, a lack of accountability measures helps to perpetuate the crimes against people on the move, as they largely go uninvestigated and unpunished. Poor coordination between Colombian and Panamanian authorities prevents affected populations from accessing adequate provisions for redress, intensifying the severity of protection risks faced.

More recently, the response to this increasing foot traffic through the Darién has been to follow the U.S.-based approach of deterrence. José Raúl Mulino, the newly elected president of Panama has announced his plans to shut down the migration route, claiming, “Panama and our Darién are not a transit route. It is our border . . . Whoever arrives here is going to be sent back to their country of origin.”

Nevertheless, the events transpiring in the Darién, despite the mainstream attention they have attracted, are not occurring in isolation and are in fact symptomatic of a larger systemic failure to address hemispheric displacement. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi rightly observes, unless we redouble our efforts to address root causes and prioritize protection, the human tragedy will only worsen. In light of this, perhaps the scenario could prompt a reevaluation of current frameworks, which are at risk of becoming outdated given the realities of modern circumstances, potentially catalyzing the emergence of innovative solutions.

It is time for governments to transcend traditional paradigms and embrace a framework that puts human rights and dignity at its core.
Susie Han, Research Fellow, MIMC

The MIMC offers a cumulative framework to fit the diverse mixed movements of today, seeking to better protect the rights of persons crossing international borders by reaffirming their existing rights and expanding them where warranted. It seeks to fill gaps in existing international law and establishes a set of rules that benefit migrants, refugees, and states alike. Key provisions include a Comprehensive Global Planning Platform tasked with establishing context-specific working groups to propose solutions to protracted situations. While the aforementioned Los Angeles Declaration marked positive steps in promoting a coordinated emergency response as one of its four pillars, a more nuanced approach attuned to the needs and gaps of migrants and asylum seekers could offer a more protection-centered solution. For example, by considering the recommendations from human rights groups, the International Cooperation Mechanisms under the MIMC could provide a more streamlined system to adequately address the complex layers by taking a more thematic approach. Furthermore, the MIMC proposes special responsibilities for transit states during periods of mixed movement, such as the temporary provision of interim protection to migrants pending their safe and humane status adjudication or repatriation.

In conclusion, the plight of migrants in the Darién Gap demands urgent action and innovative solutions. It is time for governments to transcend traditional paradigms and embrace a framework that puts human rights and dignity at its core. The MIMC offers a blueprint for a more humane and pragmatic approach to migration governance—one where no one is left behind in the unforgiving depths of the jungle.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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