Thu. Jul 25th, 2024


New president José Raúl Mulino has vowed to close the route through which thousands of migrants travel to the US every year

Guardian staff and agencies

The US will cover the costs of repatriating migrants who enter Panama illegally, under a deal agreed with the Central American country’s new president who has vowed to shut down the treacherous Darién Gap used by people travelling north to the United States.

In his first address as president, José Raúl Mulino promised to seek international assistance to find solutions to what he described as a costly “humanitarian and environmental crisis”.

Last year, a record 520,000 migrants risked their lives, often at the hands of people smugglers, to traverse the Darién Gap, a dense jungle on Panama’s border with Colombia.

“We cannot continue financing the economic and social costs that massive illegal immigration generates for the country, along with the consequent connection of international criminal organisations,” Mulino said.

Minutes later, Mulino’s new foreign minister signed a memorandum of understanding with the US government to “allow the closing off of the passing of illegal immigrants through the Darién”, Panama’s government said in a statement.

The agreement, signed by US homeland security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas who attended Mulino’s inauguration, will see the US agree to “cover” the costs of repatriating migrants who enter Panama illegally.

The agreement was designed to reduce the number of migrants being “smuggled through the Darién, usually en route to the United States”, a spokesperson for the White House national security council said in a statement.

The efforts to send some migrants back to their homelands “will help deter irregular migration in the region and at our southern border, and halt the enrichment of malign smuggling networks that prey on vulnerable migrants”, the spokesperson said.

Under the terms of the agreement, US homeland security teams on the ground in Panama would help the government there train personnel and build up its own expertise and ability to determine which migrants, under Panama’s immigration laws, could be removed from the country, according to two senior administration officials.

For those migrants who are to be removed, the US would pay for charter flights or commercial airplane tickets for them to return to their home countries.

The Darién Gap has become a superhighway of sorts for migrants from across the southern hemisphere and beyond who are trying to make it to the US.

More than 190,000 people have crossed it so far in 2024, with most of the migrants from Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia and China.

The Biden administration has struggled to show voters during an election year that it has a handle on immigration and border security. Former president Donald Trump, who has made immigration a key election year issue, has criticised Biden, saying he’s responsible for the problems at the border.

On Monday, data shoed that undocumented crossings at the US’s southern border had fallen to a three-year low, marking the lowest in Joe Biden’s presidency just a short time after he signed a controversial executive order limiting immigration there in June.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report

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