By Giovanna Ferullo M.
Panama City, Oct 19 (EFE).- Speaking in the wake of the United States’ decision to impose new stricter immigration rules on Venezuelans, the International Organization for Migration’s mission chief in Panama said the assisted voluntary return of migrants could help ease human suffering in the Americas.
“We have to coordinate actions in a very short period of time because it’s a humanitarian crisis. It’s a matter of life or death for many migrants,” Giuseppe Loprete said in an interview with Efe. In that context, he said “voluntary return is a key issue.”
Panama is the port of entry to Central America from the south. This year, an unprecedented number of around 190,000 undocumented migrants – more than 70 percent of them Venezuelan – have arrived in that country after crossing the Darien Gap, a potentially deadly stretch of thick jungle and steep mountains that forms a natural border between Panama and Colombia.
Venezuelans had been encouraged to make the long journey to the US due in part to the lack of formal diplomatic relations between their leftist-led homeland and the US.
As the thinking went, that meant they would not be repatriated under a US pandemic-related policy known as Title 42, which allowed border agents to quickly expel migrants to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
But that changed last Wednesday when President Joe Biden’s administration announced a new migration enforcement process aimed at reducing “the number of people arriving at our Southwest border and create a more orderly and safe process for people fleeing the humanitarian and economic crisis in Venezuela.”
Under the new “joint actions with Mexico,” the US Department of Homeland Security said up to 24,000 Venezuelans with a US sponsor are now eligible to apply for a humanitarian parole program and be granted temporary permission to work in the country.
But any Venezuelan who enters Mexico or Panama illegally as part of their long trek northward will be ineligible for the parole program, the DHS release said of the new rules, with took effect immediately.
Furthermore, those who “attempt to cross the southern border of the United States illegally will be returned to Mexico and will be ineligible for this process in the future,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was quoted as saying in the release.
Mexico has agreed to accept the Mexican migrants under that expansion of Title 42 after having previously refused to do so.
Loprete said of the new US measures, which were announced ahead of midterm elections and amid Republican criticisms about record numbers of illegal border crossings, that “we have to monitor what will happen now” but that “there are already migrants who are asking to be returned.”
“Some of them are thinking about returning through the Darien (Gap), and that’s something that must absolutely be avoided,” the head of the United Nations’ migration agency in Panama said.
It is unclear how many people have died in that jungle region amid the current migrant wave. Those who have traveled through the Darien Gap say some migrants have died from falls down steep mountainsides, while others have drowned in rivers, perished from disease or been killed by members of criminal gangs.
Assisted voluntary return programs, according to Loprete, assist migrants who have run out of money and want to get back to their homelands.
IOM covers the travel costs and coordinates with the countries of origin of the migrants, who often are undocumented.
“There are migrants (of different nationalities) who want to return from Panama, Costa Rica and other Central American countries, Loprete said.
But he said that in the wake of the Biden administration’s new enforcement process for Venezuelans the focus now is on Panama, where Migrant Reception Stations provide people arriving from Colombia with health and food assistance and collect their biometric data.
“One option would be for them to stay for a limited time” of up to three weeks in Panama before voluntarily returning to their home countries, the IOM mission chief said.
That return trip “could be done by plane, avoiding all those problems (of crossing the hemisphere irregularly on foot). The IOM has limited funds, but we can do it. Of course, with the support of donors, we can do much more,” Loprete said. EFE