(New York) – New visa restrictions imposed by several countries in the Americas have led to a significant increase in the number of Venezuelans crossing a dangerous jungle area on the Colombia-Panama border, known as the Darien Gap, exposing them to gross abuses, Human Rights Watch today said.
The number of Venezuelans crossing the Darien Gap to the North American mainland has skyrocketed over the past year as countries imposed visa restrictions, making it harder for Venezuelans to travel by air to Mexico. and Central America. Venezuelans have overtaken Cubans and Haitians as the largest national group making the crossing in 2022, accounting for more than a third of all migrants making the crossing. During their days of walking across the divide, migrants of all nationalities frequently face robbery and serious abuse, including rape. They also face dangerous natural conditions, such as rushing rivers and wild animals.
“People fleeing human rights crises in countries in the region should have a safe and orderly way to seek protection abroad,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, acting Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Leaders who recently signed the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection should honor their pledge by urgently rolling back immigration measures that force people through dangerous passages.”
On June 10, 2022, 20 countries, including the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, and Honduras, signed the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. The declaration, led by US President Joe Biden, includes commitments to strengthen and expand the means for people to migrate and seek asylum safely and lawfully, and to pursue accountability for those who commit abuses. against immigrants.
In April and May, Human Rights Watch traveled to Necoclí, Colombia; and Metetí, Canaán Membrillo and David, in Panama, to document abuses against migrants and asylum seekers of all nationalities crossing the Darien Gap, and to assess authorities’ systems to protect migrants and ensure access to justice. Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 100 migrants and asylum seekers, including dozens of Venezuelans, as well as aid workers and Panamanian government officials, including Attorney General Javier Caraballo, Deputy Health Minister Ivette Berrío and Deputy Foreign Minister Marta Elida Gordón.
Most migrants who make the dangerous journey through the Darien Gap do so because they cannot obtain visas to travel north by air. For years, the majority has been Cuban and Haitian. As of January 2022, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Belize have imposed new visa requirements on nationals of countries whose citizens are arriving in greater numbers at the southern border of the United States, including Venezuelans. Many Venezuelans say they cross the Darien Gap because these visa requirements have limited their ability to take safer routes to seek protection in the United States.
In some cases, governments have reportedly imposed these new immigration restrictions in response to pressure from the United States. During a US Senate hearing in May 2022, a State Department official said that when the US sees an increase in the number of people of a certain nationality arriving at the southern border, it releases that information. governments in the region to “seek areas of partnership”. “Countries can then decide “through their own sovereign decision-making process…to impose visas on these nationalities to ensure that those arriving by air do not intend… [to immigrate] in the United States,” the official said. The Biden administration then continues to “work in partnership” with other countries “to ensure that the route is not diverted” by another country, she said.
In 2021, a record 133,000 people crossed the Darien Gap, including 29,000 children, according to official data from Panamanian authorities. In the first four months of 2022, the number of migrants and asylum seekers crossing the gap nearly doubled compared to the same months in 2021. Panamanian authorities told Human Rights Watch that the total number of migrants crossing the gap is expected to increase in 2022.
Most Venezuelans crossing the divide told Human Rights Watch that they were fleeing their country’s harsh economic conditions and difficulty accessing basic necessities, especially medicine and food, due to the humanitarian emergency in the country. Some said government authorities, security forces or gangs persecuted them. While some had lived in other Latin American countries just before their trip, many more said they left Venezuela in recent weeks.
Flying to Mexico or Central America is not only safer than overland travel, but likely cheaper, according to interviews with migrants. The trip to Darien Gap could cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Migrants crossing the Darien Gap currently take two routes, Human Rights Watch found. Some pay US$300 per passenger for a boat from Capurganá, Colombia to Carreto, Panama, and walk 2-5 days through the jungle – a safer route, where fewer abuses have been reported. Those who cannot afford this amount walk 6-10 days through the jungle from Capurganá.
Many migrants who took this longer route said they were assaulted by gangs who robbed and threatened them. Between January and May, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) provided medical and psychological assistance to 89 women of various nationalities who suffered sexual abuse in the Darien Gap.
Aid workers said that because many Venezuelan migrants lack money, they are more likely than others to take the longer and more dangerous route. Some sleep on a beach in Necoclí, Colombia, for several days until they can get enough money, often by picking up trash, to continue their journey.
Most of the unaccompanied children using the Darien Gap road are Venezuelan, according to Panamanian authorities and aid workers. Some started their journey without their parents; others lost contact with them along the way.
A 21-year-old Venezuelan woman who crossed the Darien Gap with four friends in April en route to the United States said she fled Venezuela due to “the dire situation in the country”. A group of hooded men with a “machete” robbed them as they crossed. The woman and her friends said they originally planned to travel to Mexico but decided to drive to Darien after visa requirements came into effect.
A 32-year-old pregnant woman said she fled Venezuela with her partner because they couldn’t get enough food and medicine. A group of men attacked them in the jungle. They went days without eating. She said she was bleeding when she arrived in Panama and received medical treatment there from aid workers.
“It would be impossible for us to obtain the necessary documents to travel regularly to Mexico,” said his partner, referring to both Venezuelan documents and the visa. Human Rights Watch researchers saw them a few days later, crossing Costa Rica, continuing their journey to the United States.
The number of Venezuelans detained by Mexican immigration authorities after entering the country illegally has increased dramatically since new visa requirements took effect. According to official figures, Mexican authorities detained 6,666 Venezuelans in the first four months of 2022, compared to 96 in the same four months of 2021.
The number of Venezuelans seeking asylum in Mexico has also increased. In the first four months of 2022, 4,270 applied, compared to 6,192 in 2021. Asylum seekers in Mexico are often forced to wait months or years in appalling conditions to obtain legal status.
Visa requirements are particularly difficult to meet for Venezuelans who often do not have a passport or other required documents. Official documents, including marriage and birth certificates, are difficult to obtain in Venezuela and abroad, as Venezuelan consular services are scarce. While the official fee for obtaining a passport in Venezuela is around US$200, some agents charge more. These fees are unaffordable for most Venezuelans, who earn the minimum wage of around US$28 per month.
“Immigration restrictions imposed by the governments of Mexico and Central America have not deterred thousands of migrants from leaving their homes to seek protection abroad,” said Taraciuk Broner. “Instead, they have pushed many into dangerous and irregular routes, where they face serious risks and often suffer abuse and violence.”