Fivefold Surge in Migrants en Route to U.S. Overwhelms Panama

Panama is struggling to cope with a five-fold increase in migrants who trek for days through its dense southern jungle in the hope of reaching the U.S., according to the country’s top diplomat.

The migrants, from as far away as Senegal and Nigeria, are starting to overwhelm Panama’s shelters as numbers surge, Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes said.

Fivefold Surge in Migrants en Route to U.S. Overwhelms Panama

“The migrant situation has gotten a lot worse,” Mouynes said Wednesday, in an interview in New York. “We give them food, we put them in camps where you do biometric testing and Covid testing. That is fine if you have numbers you can manage, but if all of a sudden you have five times that amount it becomes difficult.”

The nation’s migration authority recorded 5,818 undocumented foreigners crossing into Panama from Colombia in April, up 477% from January. The biggest source countries are Haiti and Cuba, but many also travel from as far away as Bangladesh and Uzbekistan, trying to eventually reach the U.S.

The flow of people picked up as travel restrictions eased across the world, after the pandemic increased unemployment and poverty in developing nations. Migrants enter South America in places where visa rules are favorable, then make their way north to Colombia, before crossing into Panama across the dangerous no-man’s land known as the Darien Gap.

Mouynes said she is seeking talks with governments in South America to help control the flow, or at least to vaccinate migrants as they travel.

The problem is easier to fix than the more visible migration flow toward the U.S. from the so-called northern triangle nations of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, Mouynes said.

Herd Immunity

Latin America has been among the regions worst-hit by the pandemic, both in terms of deaths and in economic damage. Panama has lagged regional peers in its vaccination drive, but Mouynes says the government is targeting a “massive” inoculation program in the third quarter to achieve herd immunity by September.

The government of President Laurentino Cortizo, which took office in 2019, is inoculating elderly and at-risk populations and will begin mass vaccination in July, she said.

Unlike most countries in Latin America, which raced to acquire shots wherever they could, Panama put nearly all its eggs in the basket of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine.

Mouynes met with Pfizer during her trip to New York, and said she received assurances that Panama would get the shots it ordered.

“We want Pfizer to recognize that Panama’s huge bet on Pfizer in terms of not having this hedge with other pharmaceuticals also leaves us at a bit of a risk if they don’t deliver the supply,” Mouynes said. “We are targeting mass vaccination in July. If that doesn’t happen for us we will be in big trouble.”

Vaccine Diplomacy

Vaccines could also play a role in regional foreign policy, Mouynes said. Offering shots to Venezuela could be one way to get President Nicolas Maduro to sit down with the opposition. So far, nothing else that’s been tried has worked, she added.

“The extent of the humanitarian crisis that is going on there is similar to Syria,” she said. “The quicker we recognize that the path we have taken has not been successful, the better, because doing more of what we were doing is not going to make a difference.”

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