Top United States officials are in Panama for a summit on migration in the Americas, where migrant rights groups say US policies exacerbate the dangers faced by migrants and asylum seekers heading north.
The US secretaries of state and homeland security are joining their counterparts from 20 other countries in the western hemisphere for a ministerial conference on migration on Tuesday and Wednesday in Panama City.
“The US delegation will deepen our ongoing efforts to improve bilateral and regional cooperation on irregular migration and forced displacement, and lay the groundwork for a successful Summit of the Americas in June,” the State Department said on Tuesday.
However, migrant rights advocates contend that security and deterrence policies pushed by the US and other destination countries aggravate the risks migrants and asylum seekers face in transit through the region.
“The US government has been so focused on enforcement,” said Kennji Kizuka, associate director for refugee protection research and analysis at Human Rights First, a US non-profit group. “That has forced many asylum seekers to take more dangerous routes,” he told Al Jazeera.
High-level dialogue at the conference this week will pursue a “holistic response to the challenges irregular migration generates throughout our continent”, Panama’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Sunday.
Multilateral banks, non-governmental organisations and international institutions – including the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) – are also participating in the ministerial conference.
More than one-fifth of the estimated 82.4 million people forcibly displaced in the world are in the Americas, said William Spindler, UNHCR’s spokesman for Latin America and the Caribbean.
“The most effective and sustainable strategy to achieve the stabilisation of populations on the move is to invest in regularisation and integration processes,” Spindler told Al Jazeera via email.
“An example is the granting by Colombia of a temporary protection status for a duration of 10 years to all Venezuelans living in its territory,” he said.
UNHCR representatives attending the ministerial conference will also highlight the importance of regional coordination mechanisms and engagement with international and private sector actors to address the root causes of displacement.
“At a time when the attention of the world is focused on the crisis in Ukraine, it is important to remember that there are other situations that also deserve and need the political commitment and resources of the international community,” said Spindler.
Panama made repeated calls for international aid last year to bolster humanitarian assistance efforts in the Darien region, where migrants and asylum seekers from dozens of countries enter from Colombia and walk for days through the jungle.
River crossings, exposure and armed groups all pose serious dangers to people transiting the area. At least 51 people were reported missing or dead last year, according to UNHCR.
The overwhelming majority of the more than 133,000 migrants who crossed through the Darien region in 2021 were of Haitian origin or descent, according to Panamanian government records. But the pattern has since shifted.
Venezuela is now the top nationality of migrants transiting the Darien. Of the 13,425 migrants and asylum seekers recorded in the region over the first three months of this year, 4,257 were Venezuelans, already far surpassing that country’s total in 2021.
Since taking office in January last year, US President Joe Biden’s administration has focused on what it calls addressing “the root causes” of migration from Central America, as children and families have been arriving at the country’s southern border with Mexico in large numbers.
Biden has also continued past US administrations’ pressure on Mexico – and to a growing extent now also Guatemala – to stop migrants and asylum seekers before they reach the border.
The pressure on Mexico to clamp down on migrants and asylum seekers transiting north likely played a role in the increase in the Darien region, according to Kizuka. “Mexico was pushed by the United States to impose a visa restriction on Venezuelans,” he said. “The US has pushed more people through Panama, through the Darien Gap.”
Mexico instated a visa requirement for Venezuelans in January, following suspensions late last year of visa exemptions for nationals of Ecuador and Brazil. As of this month, Colombians must preregister online to enter Mexico.
The US also directly places migrants and asylum seekers in harm’s way by restricting access to asylum through policies at its southern border, according to rights groups. The future of some of those policies is uncertain.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the administrations of Donald Trump and now Joe Biden have summarily carried out more than 1.7 million expulsions at the country’s southern border on fiercely contested public health grounds, using what is known as “Title 42”.
Human Rights First has found nearly 10,000 cases of kidnapping, sexual assault, torture and violence against people in Mexico blocked or expelled by the US due to the use of Title 42 by the Biden administration. People expelled to other countries often face similar risks.
Cinthia, an asylum seeker from Honduras, planned to request protection in the US but was expelled under Title 42 before she got the chance, after making it across the border. She said she faces death threats in her home country from armed extortionists.
“All the governments talk about supporting migrants but they do the opposite,” she told Al Jazeera, requesting her last name not be used for security reasons.
The use of Title 42 is currently set to end on May 23, but court action, Congress or the administration itself could change that course. “There are signs of strain within the Democratic Party around what to do with Title 42,” said Kizuka.
“This is viewed as a political issue,” he said. “The administration, it seems like, is making policy decisions based on election prospects for the midterms.”