Migration via South America hits record highs
Hundreds of miles to the south, the number of migrants whose northward journeys might lead them to Chiapas keeps growing. In Colombia, according to the government’s human rights ombudsman (Defensoría), 11,400 people, most of them Haitian, are stranded in the Caribbean town of Necoclí. This is the last stop before ferries to the Panama border for migrants who mostly entered Colombia via Ecuador, 700 miles further south.
This is the second time in two months that the number of people waiting in Necoclí has reached 10,000 (see our August 6 update). They have filled hotels and private homes, and many are sleeping on the beach. Mayor Jorge Tobónsays that 1,000 people are arriving in Necoclí each day right now, but the ferries are only talking 500 per day—the result of an agreement between Colombia and Panama to limit the flow into Panama. As a result, “if this trend continues, by the end of September we’re going to have more than 25,000 migrants in Necoclí,” the mayor says.
Panama claims that Colombia is in fact permitting more than 500 migrants per day to depart. “Right now we have 6,500 more people than we would have if the accord had been complied with,” said the director of Panama’s National Migration Service. The country’s security ministersaid that a remarkable 70,000 migrants have arrived in Panama so far this year, way up from 7,000 in the same period of 2020 and 17,000 in the same period of 2019. The Associated Press reported a still-high figure of 50,000, of whom about 16 percent are children.
The most worrying aspect of this sharply increased migration is that this route requires people to cross through Panama’s roadless, ungoverned Darién Gap wilderness. Migrants who travel through South and Central America routinely say that the Darién is the most dangerous part of their journey. As a Pulitzer-winning April 2020 report from Nadja Drost vividly documents, migrants in the Darién are routinely robbed and see dead bodies in a forest dominated by criminal bands and armed groups. The Wall Street Journal reported that Doctors Without Borders began providing medical care in May to migrants exiting the jungle from the Darién Gap. Since then, the group has documented 180 cases of rape. 70 percent of the time, the migrants were raped on Panamanian territory. “The group believes the true number of victims is likely far higher since many migrants don’t report the attacks.”
Further south, Ecuador has suddenly become the fourth-largest nationality of migrants whom U.S. authorities encounter at the U.S.-Mexico border. This owes heavily to Mexico’s 2018 decision to lift visa requirements for visiting Ecuadorians. Many who could afford a plane ticket have been flying to Mexico, traveling north, and crossing the land border into the United States. There, most have avoided expulsion under the “Title 42” pandemic policy, since deportation flight capacity to Quito is limited.
Ecuador’s government says 88,696 of its citizens traveled to Mexico from January to July 2021, and only 34,331 have returned. During those seven months, U.S. border agencies encountered citizens of Ecuador 62,494 times.
In response, very likely at the strong suggestion of the U.S. government, Mexico has reinstated its visa requirement for Ecuadorian citizens. This may mean a brief reduction in migration from Ecuador, but experts interviewed by the Guayaquil daily El Universo expect that migration routes will adjust. Even if the route becomes more dangerous, the state of the country’s COVID-battered economy may still lead many Ecuadorians to risk the journey.