Over the last year, over half a million people have crossed the Darién Gap, a swampy jungle at the Colombia-Panama border, on their journey north, often to the United States. Venezuelans, Haitians, and Ecuadorians, but also people from other regions like Asia and Africa, risk their lives in this difficult terrain, where they are exposed to unchecked abuses by criminal groups, including sexual violence, and receive little protection or humanitarian assistance.
Human Rights Watch visited the Darién Gap four times between April 2022 and June 2023 and interviewed almost 300 people to document the drivers of, and responses to, this crisis. We documented why migrants and asylum seekers flee their own countries and are reluctant to stay in other countries in South America; how criminal groups abuse and exploit them on the way; and where Colombia’s and Panama’s responses fall short in assisting and protecting them, and in investigating abuses against them.
This report, the first in a series of Human Rights Watch reports on migration via the Darién Gap, documents how a lack of safe and legal pathways has pushed migrants and asylum seekers fleeing human rights crises in Latin America to risk their lives crossing the Darién Gap. It suggests that restrictions on movement from South American countries to Mexico and Central America, often promoted by the United States government, have contributed—in combination with an increase in migration from South America to the United States—to sharp increases in numbers of people crossing the Darién Gap, exposing them to abuses, including sexual violence, and empowering organized crime in the area.
Between 2005 and 2020, the number of migrants in Latin America and the Caribbean more than doubled, from around 7 million to 15 million, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), making it the region with the highest growth globally of international migrants during that time.
Over 440,000 Venezuelans have crossed the Darién Gap since January 2022—the largest number for any nationality. They flee an ongoing humanitarian emergency in their country, which has undermined access to food and medicine, as well as abuses and persecution by security forces, armed groups, and gangs.
Ecuadorians and Haitians are also crossing the Darién Gap in large numbers. Many of the over 80,000 Ecuadorians who have crossed the gap since January 2022 flee increased violence in their country, marked by unprecedented homicide and extortion rates.
Haiti suffers a long-standing political, security and humanitarian crisis that has left all government branches inoperative, allowing overwhelming impunity for crimes committed by the brutal 300 criminal groups that control parts of the country. Over 63,000 Haitians have crossed the Darién Gap since January 2022.
On the Colombian side of the Darién Gap, the Gulf Clan, an armed group involved in drug trafficking, regulates the routes that migrants and asylum seekers can use, decides who can assist them on the way, extorts people who benefit from migrant flows, and establishes rules of conduct for locals and migrants alike, at times enforcing them through violence. The Colombian military estimates that the Clan collects, on average, US$125 per person crossing the Darién Gap. If the estimate is accurate, the armed group may have made a total of US$57 million between January and October 2023 from its control over this migration route, due in part to restrictive policies pushing migrants and asylum seekers through the Darién Gap to head north.
Criminals and bandits abuse migrants and asylum seekers as they cross the many routes across the jungle, especially on the Panamanian side. People are routinely robbed, sexually abused, and at times raped. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has assisted 950 people, most of them women, who reported sexual violence crossing the Darién Gap since April 2021.
What is happening in the Darién Gap is the result of a range of failed policies across the hemisphere—and the urgent need for a rights-respecting response to protect people fleeing human rights crises in the region.
Governments in the Americas should take steps towards ensuring rights-respecting immigration policies building on the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, signed by 21 states in the region in 2022. They should also seize the December 2023 Global Refugee Forum and the upcoming 40th anniversary of the 1984 Cartagena Declaration—a landmark international instrument on refugees’ rights in Latin America—to respond to the increasing migration challenges in the region.
These governments should implement a region-wide temporary protection regime that would grant all Venezuelans and Haitians legal status for a reasonably timed and renewable term. Mexico and Central American governments, in particular, should ensure that their visa requirements do not effectively prevent access to asylum and push people to resort to dangerous crossings including the Darién Gap.
Hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers are fleeing human rights crises in the Americas and beyond, while many are also escaping poverty. Whether seeking international protection or economic opportunities, asylum seekers and migrants deserve safe, orderly, and dignified paths to make their claims or to offer their skills. In all cases, they are entitled to basic safety and respect for their human rights during their journey.
This report is part of a series of Human Rights Watch reports on migration in the Americas and the Darién Gap. Later reports are expected to focus on the drivers of migration in the region—including the situations in Venezuela, Haiti, and Ecuador, as well as the limited integration and regularization policies in other countries in South America—and on Colombia’s and Panama’s efforts to protect and assist people crossing the Darién Gap and to ensure accountability for crimes committed against them.
In researching the situation in the Darién Gap, Human Rights Watch visited the Colombian side of the Darién in April 2022 and June 2023 and the Panamanian side in May 2022 and March 2023. In total, researchers interviewed over 160 migrants and asylum seekers who had or were about to cross the Darién Gap. Some people—including a few who had reached the US, Costa Rica, or Mexico—were interviewed by phone. Interviews were conducted in Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English.
During its visits and by phone, Human Rights Watch also interviewed some 50 humanitarian workers from UN agencies and humanitarian organizations, as well as Colombian and Panamanian authorities within the national Ombudsperson’s Offices, Attorney General’s Offices, Ministries of Foreign Affairs, and migration offices, among others.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed by phone migration experts, as well as international, regional, and local organizations and legal clinics working with migrants and asylum seekers throughout the region, including in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
Most migrants and asylum seekers and some humanitarian workers spoke to researchers on condition that we withhold their names and other identifying information. Interviewees’ details have also been withheld when Human Rights Watch believed that publishing the information would put someone at risk. Human Rights Watch uses pseudonyms to identify migrants and asylum seekers interviewed during its research.
Human Rights Watch informed all participants of the purpose of the interview, its voluntary nature, and how the information would be used. Each participant orally consented to be interviewed. They did not receive any payment or other incentive. Where appropriate, Human Rights Watch provided migrants and asylum seekers with contact information for organizations offering healthcare, legal, social, or counseling services.
Human Rights Watch took care when interviewing survivors of abuses, particularly of sexual violence. When possible, Human Rights Watch received information from humanitarian workers supporting survivors to minimize the risk that recounting their experiences could further traumatize the survivors.
Human Rights Watch reviewed academic studies regarding migration flows in Latin America, as well as data and reports by the Colombian, Panamanian and US governments; UN agencies; international, regional, and local human rights and humanitarian organizations; local legal clinics; and media outlets.
Most significantly, Human Rights Watch obtained access and analyzed anonymized data from 1,382 surveys of migrants and asylum seekers conducted by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Darién Gap between July 2022 and June 2023.
As part of the research on migration in the Americas and the Darién Gap, Human Rights Watch sent multiple information requests to government authorities. Some of their responses will be also reflected in later publications. The information requests included:
- In July 2022 and July 2023, Human Rights Watch sent information requests to the following Colombian authorities regarding the departure of migrants and asylum seekers from Colombia and authorities’ response: the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the national police, the national migration office (Migración Colombia), the Attorney General’s Office, the Ombudsperson’s Office, the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar, ICBF), and the mayor’s offices in Necoclí, Turbo, Acandí and Juradó. As of October 31, 2023, Human Rights Watch had received partial or complete responses from all Colombian authorities with the exception of the mayor’s offices in Necoclí and Acandí and the national migration office.
- In July 2022 and March 2023, Human Rights Watch sent information requests to the following Panamanian authorities regarding the arrival of migrants and asylum seekers to Panama and authorities’ response: the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Ministry of Public Safety, the Ministry of Health, the National Migration Service (Servicio Nacional de Migración, SNM), the National Border Service (Servicio Nacional de Fronteras, SENAFRONT), the Attorney General’s Office, the Ombudsperson’s Office, the National Service for Children, Adolescents and Families (Secretaría Nacional de Niñez, Adolescencia y Familia, SENIAF), and the National Office for Refugee Care (Oficina Nacional para la Atención de Refugiados, ONPAR). As of October 31, 2023, Human Rights Watch had received partial or complete responses from all Panamanian authorities. The Health Ministry and the Attorney General’s Office had not provided updated information corresponding to events occurring in 2023.
I. The Darién Gap Crossing
The Darién Gap is a swampy jungle that lies between the Colombian state of Chocó and the Panamanian province of Darién, forming a natural border not only between those countries, but between South and Central America. The Pan-American Highway, which connects Alaska (in the US) and Ushuaia (in Argentina), is interrupted only for the 66 miles of dense jungle.
The terrain is steep and slippery, the rivers rushing, especially during rainy season. Most routes follow paths that crest a rugged mountain range with ridges as high as 6,000 feet—where flags mark the Colombian-Panamanian border. People crossing call the highest pass “Death Hill” (Loma de la Muerte) and the Turquesa river “Death River” (Río de la Muerte), for the large number of dead bodies in its waters. Temperatures range from 20 to 35 degrees Celsius (75 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit), with heavy rainfall and flooding from May to December.
The Colombian side of the border is mostly at the Urabá region, named after the Urabá Gulf. Four Colombian municipalities directly border the Darién jungle: Juradó, Riosucio, Unguía and Acandí, all in Chocó state. The latter three are considered among Colombia’s most affected by decades of armed conflict, poverty, and a weak state presence. The four encompass a total population of roughly 99,000, including people living in Indigenous Embera Katío and Embera Dobida reserves, as well as people living in Afro-Colombian communities that, under Colombian law, are governed by “community councils” (consejos comunitarios). Acandí, from which most migrants and asylum seekers launch toward Panama, has three main community councils: Consejo Mayor de Comunidades Negras de la Cuenca del Río Acandí y Zona Costera Norte (COCOMANORTE), Consejo Mayor de Comunidades Negras de la Cuenca del Río Tolo y Zona Costera Sur (COCOMASUR) and Consejo Mayor de Comunidades Negras de La Cuenca del Río Acandí Seco, El Cedro y El Juancho (COCOMASECO). Many migrants start the journey through the Darién in Necoclí, Antioquia state, a roughly 45,000-person coastal town near the Caribbean Sea.
In Panama, the Darién jungle extends through a province with the same name. Indigenous Kuna, Emberá and Wounaan people live within the Darién province in “comarcas,” territories under Indigenous jurisdiction recognized by Panamanian law. More than 13,000 people from 40 different communities—including Bajo Chiquito and Canaán Membrillo—live in the 4,383-km Emberá-Wounaan comarca in the Darién,according to Panama’s National Institute of Statistics and Census (Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas y Censos, INEC).
Migration through the Darién Gap
For decades, migrants and asylum seekers migrating northward from South America have used the Darién Gap, generally with the intent of entering the US. Thousands of people, with more than 70 nationalities, have made the journey through “one of the most dangerous migration routes,” according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). That number has increased dramatically in recent years.
In 2010, Panama began officially registering migrant crossings. From 2010 through 2014, Panama averaged fewer than 2,500 crossings per year. The first real peak of people crossing through the Darién Gap took place in 2015 and 2016 with roughly 30,000 registered arrivals each of those two years. Those crossings were mainly by Cubans and Haitians, Panamanian data shows, followed by nationals of other countries in Africa and Asia. Between 2010 and 2019, more than 109,000 people crossed.
Despite a significant drop from in 2020, caused by border closures and quarantine measures adopted in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of people crossing the Darién Gap soared by almost 4,000 percent between 2020 and 2022. More than 130,000 migrants, particularly Haitians and Cubans, crossed the Darién Gap in 2021. In 2022, the number of crossings increased to 250,000, with a surge of Venezuelans and Ecuadorians. Between January and October 2023, more than 457,000 people crossed the Gap, a record number that has already surpassed estimates made by the Panamanian government for the entire year.
Through 2018, migrants and asylum seekers crossing the Darién were mainly adult men. Since 2019 this has changed. Families with children are crossing, as are women—at times pregnant or breastfeeding—alone with their children, and unaccompanied or separated girls, boys, and adolescents. Around 22 percent of those crossing between January and September 2023 were children.
The Gulf Clan’s Role
Armed groups have been present in Urabá since the 1970s. These have included the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) guerrillas and paramilitary groups, which at times engaged in fighting.
The Gulf Clan, also known as Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC), has been the main armed group in the region since the FARC’s 2016 peace accord with the Colombian government. In 2020, the Clan defeated the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN), which had also been present in the Urabá municipalities of Juradó, Riosucio and Carmen del Darién.
The Clan, with approximately 9,000 members nationwide, has “hegemonic control” over the Urabá, according to the Ombudsperson’s Office. It engages in criminal activities, including drug and arms trafficking, and extortion, and imposes rules to control people’s daily life and economic activities. “Everything that happens in Necoclí occurs under the supervision of the Clan,” a man who had worked in a boat company moving migrants and asylum seekers told Human Rights Watch.
For example, for five days in May 2022, the Clan declared an “armed strike” restricting civilians’ movements in over 190 municipalities across 13 states. These included the Urabá region, where people were forced to stay home and schools, offices and stores were closed.
When the Clan’s then-leader Dairo Antonio Úsaga, known as “Otoniel,” was arrested, in October 2021, the group increased its involvement in the flow of migrants and asylum seekers across the Darién. Today the Clan performs three main roles in connection with the flow of migrants and asylum seekers in the Darién Gap:
- The Gulf Clan regulates the routes that migrants and asylum seekers can use and decides who can assist them on the way. As described below, the Clan has closed several routes, including apparently by killing a community leader involved in the movement of migrants. The Community Councils, which organize the routes, ask the Clan for permission to use certain routes, a prosecutor said. The group wants to avoid migrant flow on the land routes it uses for drug trafficking, according to a prosecutor and officials with the Ombudsperson’s Office.
The group also uses the migrant flow to divert attention from the movement of cocaine by sea. Two people who help migrants and asylum seekers in Necoclí, for example, told Human Rights Watch that Gulf Clan members summoned them to a meeting in March 2022 and told them to take migrants and asylum seekers to boat companies that operate unlawfully out of Totumo, a small town inside Necoclí, to Carreto, in Panamá. These boats often travel parallel to boats carrying cocaine. When the Navy intervenes, the boatmen throw the migrants and asylum seekers into the sea and flee, several sources said.
The Clan has also set up systems to track migrants’ and asylum seekers’ payments to cross the Darién Gap. These included giving out bracelets to those who paid and, more recently, putting stickers on their passports or IDs.
- The Gulf Clan extorts everyone who benefits from the migration flow on the Colombian side. The Clan’s internal “bylaws” establish that its income comes, among others, from “taxes from the illicit activities.” These include people who rent their homes, sell boat trips, or provide services as “guides” across the jungle. A prosecutor estimated that the Clan gets 20 percent of all the income related to migration activities. Colombia’s Ministry of Defense told Human Rights Watch that the Gulf Clan obtains approximately US$125 for each migrant or asylum seeker crossing the Gap.
- The Gulf Clan establishes rules on the local population and migrants and asylum seekers—and at times enforces them through threats and killings. These include prohibitions on harming migrants and asylum seekers. For example, in November 2021, the Clan apparently killed a “guide” who had sexually abused migrants. “They conduct ‘social cleansing,’” a man who worked in a boat company said, referring to the killing of alleged criminals. They maintain a lower level of violence and abuses to avoid drawing the attention of security forces, he and others said.
Journey through the Darién Gap
Transit routes through the Darién Gap have changed, over the years, in response to the needs of migrants and asylum seekers and restrictions imposed by Panamanian authorities as well as by the Gulf Clan.
The journey is a profitable business for many, including the Gulf Clan, communities in Colombia, and Indigenous groups in Panama. Tens of millions of dollars can circulate through the Darién each year due to activities related to migrants and asylum seekers.
Migrants and asylum seekers often pay high fees to cross the gap, with prices depending on the routes they take. This includes fees for the people known as “guides,” who show migrants and asylum seekers the routes and often accompany them part of the way. The level of risk to which migrants and asylum seekers are exposed during the journey depends in large part on the route they can afford.
UNHCR estimates that almost 70 percent of the people crossing between July 2022 and January 2023 paid for a guide. A member of the Colombian Ombudsperson’s Office told Human Rights Watch that guides operate in a “relay system.” At the border, Afro-Colombian guides in Colombia hand off travelers to Indigenous Panamanian guides across the border.
Some migrants and asylum seekers told Human Rights Watch that guides helped them carry their bags—and even their children—during the first part of the journey. Others said guides abandoned them at the border or even handed them over to criminal groups that abused them.
The first part of the journey, approaching the Darién from Colombia, is generally accomplished by sea, which is easier than land. By September 2023, around 1,000-1,700 people were departing from Necoclí every day to cross the Gap, according to the Interagency Group for Mixed Migration Flows (Grupo Interagencial de Flujos Migratorios Mixtos, GIFMM), a coordination platform for humanitarian actors and government agencies in Colombia.
Most people arriving in Panama started their journey from one of two Necoclí docks authorized by Colombian authorities. The boats traditionally departed from Necoclí to take tourists to Acandí beaches, but the arrival of migrants and asylum seekers shifted their business purpose. Migrants and asylum seekers buy the same boat tickets as tourists but pay twice the price—over US$40, compared to US$18.
Boats from the authorized docks provide lifejackets, formal tickets, and established departure times. Colombian authorities do not keep their own register of the people leaving. They rely on boat companies to register the names and passport number of every person they are transporting.
Other migrants and asylum seekers start their journeys in the city of Turbo, a port district an hour south of Necoclí, with 133,430 inhabitants. The route through Turbo turned popular again in 2023 after being largely unused for several years. The GIFMM and the Mayor’s Office estimated that around 500-1,000 people were departing each day from Turbo by September 2023. Departing from Turbo is cheaper, and the route appears to be used by migrants and asylum seekers with fewer financial resources, particularly Venezuelans and Ecuadorians.
Humanitarian workers and Colombia’s Ombudsperson’s Office told Human Rights Watch there are also unauthorized boats departing from other beaches in Necoclí and Turbo. Between 2021 and 2022, the Colombian Navy intercepted “approximately seven illegal boats carrying approximately 106 people,” according to the Ombudsperson’s Office. These boats navigate “at late hours, often overcrowded, and some lacking basic safety measures,” the Office said.
Passengers generally debark in Acandí or Capurganá, Colombian territory on the other side of the Gulf of Urabá.Once there, migrants and asylum seekers are taken—reportedly on motorcycles—to organized camps, commonly called “albergues” (the Spanish word for “shelters”), that are established or controlled by Afro-Colombian community councils or private actors. Government officials are not present in any of the shelters and one humanitarian organization, the Colombian Red Cross, is present in one of them.
In 2022, COCOMASECO managed two shelters in Acandí, one in the urban area and another one in Las Tecas. In 2023, COCOMASECO lost control of these shelters to a Neighborhood Action Committee (Junta de Acción Comunal, JAC) in Capurganá, a unit of social organization. According to some interviewees, this change, was influenced by the Gulf Clan and the Neighborhood Action Committee is formed by members of COCOMANORTE.
The Neighborhood Action Committee controls two more shelters. One is located in Capurganá, in the area of El Platanal, and is known as Abel Pacheco, according to the Ombudsperson’s Office. The Colombian Red Cross operates there. In February 2023, the Inspector General’s Office said the shelter had “no investment or support from local or national authorities.” The other one is located in the town of Astí, further into the jungle. It is in “precarious” conditions, a person who visited said.
To access the shelters and guiding services, migrants and asylum seekers pay around US$100-300 before leaving Necoclí. Migrants and asylum seekers receive evidence that they have paid—previously, a bracelet; more recently, a sticker on their passport or ID. People controlling shelters do not allow migrants or asylum seekers to start their journey without paying. Armed men have threatened some migrants and asylum seekers who did not pay.
After staying in for a couple of hours or overnight, migrants and asylum seekers start their several-days-long journey through the jungle, sleeping in their tents along the way. Interviewees describe climbing steep hills until reaching a summit, where a flag marks the border with Panama. While UNHCR estimates that, on average, it takes people four days to cross the Darién Gap, some migrants and asylum seekers said it took them up to 12 days.
Once crossing the border into Panama, migrants and asylum seekers descend along the river, passing by Indigenous settlements Tres Bocas and Cañas Blancas before arriving at Comegallina. While crossing this area, criminals attack many migrants and asylum seekers, including by committing robberies and sexual violence, according to their statements and information provided by Panama’s Ombudsperson’s Office and humanitarian organizations. (See section II below regarding abuses against people crossing the Darién Gap.)
Arriving at Comegallina, migrants and asylum seekers employ Indigenous people in small wooden canoes, known as “piraguas,” to transport them to the Indigenous community of Bajo Chiquito and then to the Migrant Reception Station (Estación de Recepción Migratoria, ERM) of Lajas Blancas.
During the second half of 2021, most migrants heading to the gap were coming through Acandí. The flow diminished for a while after Fredy Pestana, the leader of the community council of COCOMANORTE, was killed in December 2021, apparently at the hands of the Gulf Clan, according to several sources. Since the end of 2022, the flow through Acandí has picked up again.
Some migrants and asylum seekers take a longer route passing through different Panamanian Indigenous settlements like Punta Carreto, Dos Bocas, and El Abuelo, arriving at the Indigenous community of Canaán Membrillo. From there piraguas take them to the ERM of San Vicente. This was mostly unused for several months after the end of 2022, but numbers of arrivals seem to be increasing again.
The following map depicts these routes, as well as others that Human Rights Watch identified as less popular or that have lost their popularity in recent years. These include a route starting in Unguía, in Colombia’s Chocó state, and ending in the Guna Indigenous communities of Paya and Payita, in Panama; and the route between Juradó, a Pacific-coast municipality in Colombia, and Jaqué, in Panama.
The Role of Misinformation
Reliable information about the Darién Gap is hard to obtain. In February 2023, Panama, Colombia, and the US announced coordinated efforts to, among other things, “combat misinformation.”
According to Human Rights Watch interviews, migrants and asylum seekers often rely on social media and word-of-mouth from friends and family for information. In October 2023, UNHCR said that seven out of ten people surveyed learned about the journey through family and friends. Another 35 percent used TikTok and 29 percent Facebook. Misinformation, especially coming from social media, benefits smugglers, who can spread erroneous information, humanitarian workers said; inaccurate information obtained from these sources can also be difficult to counter.
Humanitarian organizations strive to inform migrants about the risks, abuses, and available services at the other side of the border, and about new migration policies and practices, such as the CBP One app in the US.
But given the lack of safer routes and the human rights situations they flee, many people are unlikely to be dissuaded. “The answer we get from them is ‘yes, I know it is difficult, but with God’s help I will continue,’” a humanitarian worker said.
Some migrants and asylum seekers interviewed on the Panamanian side said they regretted risking their lives in a journey that was more dangerous than they expected. But others said they would do it again if it was necessary to seek protection and opportunity.
Human Rights Watch interviewees appeared to be more knowledgeable about the risks and abuses of crossing the Darién, such as robberies and sexual violence, than about US immigration policies.
II. Abuses and Risks in the Darién Gap
During their days-long walk across the gap, migrants of all nationalities frequently experience robbery and serious abuses, including sexual violence. They also face rushing rivers, mosquito-borne diseases, and venomous pit vipers.
Some 97 percent of the 219 people interviewed in Costa Rica by the global network Mixed Migration Center, between July and September 2022, said that the Darién crossing had been the most dangerous part of their journey so far. Migrants and asylum seekers reported trauma, illness and deaths, assaults related to theft and sexual violence, and other physical violence.
Similarly, over 30 percent of the around 1,380 people interviewed by UNHCR in the Darién Gap between July 2022 and June 2023 suffered some type of abuse in the jungle, including theft (20 percent), fraud (14 percent), and threats or other acts of “intimidation” (11.3 percent).
Thefts, Robberies and Threats
Many migrants are threatened or robbed when they cross the Gap.
The Panamanian Attorney General’s Office told Human Rights Watch they had opened 43 investigations into “crimes against property” (such as armed robbery) in the gap in 2021 and 65 from January through July 2022.
Most robberies appear to take place on the Panamanian side of the border. Migrants and asylum seekers told Human Rights Watch of being robbed after they passed a Panamanian flag that allows them to identify the border or a couple of days or hours before arriving in Comegallina. “The majority of the cases occur when migrants are descending the hill on the Panamanian side,” one Panamanian prosecutor said.
Several migrants and asylum seekers described being ambushed in the jungle by groups of about 8 to 15 armed men. Some said the perpetrators wore plain clothes. Others described military-style clothes, such as camouflage.
Some victims said the robbers used pistols; others described hunting rifles and machetes. A Panamanian prosecutor confirmed that these are the common weapons.
The dynamics of the robberies are often the same, according to those interviewed by Human Rights Watch. Perpetrators ambush a group at gunpoint and make people kneel or lie on the ground, then demand their money. Generally, they ask for US$100, but they open bags and backpacks, taking the scarce belongings that migrants are carrying or even wearing: food, clothes, and shoes or boots. In some cases, criminals separate the migrants by nationality or gender.
Louis Gerard (pseudonym), a 38-year-old Haitian and his wife, sister, and 4-year-old son came north from Brazil. It took them five days to cross the Darién jungle from Necoclí to Bajo Chiquito, he said. Some six to eight men ambushed them midway, wielding “short and long guns.” The bandits asked if they were Haitians, demanded US$100 per person, and rummaged through their bags, taking all their clothes and food. Most worrisome to Louis was that his son had nothing to eat “for days.”
Samson Noel (pseudonym), 30, left Cameroon after the Cameroonian government killed his father, he said. Two months later, his group of people, mostly Haitians, took the route from Capurganá to Canaán Membrillo across the Darién Gap. They made it over the steep, slippery, exposed slopes of the “Death Hill,” but on their second day of wending through the jungle, they were ambushed. Nine armed men with their faces covered, some wearing military-style clothes, made them lie on the ground, asked for US$100, and emptied the migrants’ bags. From Samson, they took US$500, along with his cellphone, toiletries, and shoes. The men hit and threatened to kill those who had little or no money, Samson said.
Luciana, 31, and Juan Herrera (pseudonyms), 32, left Venezuela, leaving their three children, ages 2, 6, and 11, behind, with the hope of sending them money from the US. “I used to say I would never leave, but the situation was impossible to sustain and I was forced to leave to be able to ensure a future for my children,” Juan said. They walked for five days, along with others, between Capurganá and Bajo Chiquito.
Hundreds of people, most of them women, have suffered sexual violence while crossing the Darién in recent years, according to humanitarian organizations.
The Panamanian Attorney General’s Office told Human Rights Watch that it had opened 99 investigations into “crimes against sexual liberty and integrity” (which includes rape and other types of sexual abuse) against migrants and asylum seekers in the Darién in 2021 and 32 between January and July 2022. However, significant underreporting of such crimes to authorities is likely.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) assisted 328 people who reported sexual violence while crossing the Darién between April and December 2021; 232 in 2022; and 390 between January and October 2023. MSF considers the total number of victims is likely higher.
Victims, humanitarian workers, and Panamanian authorities told Human Rights Watch that in most cases of sexual violence, armed men ambushed groups of migrants and asylum seekers, separated them by gender, and forced the women to take off their clothes. Women said that the men sexually assaulted them, often under the pretext of searching for hidden money, and in some cases raped them.
Rita Mendes, a 39-year-old Angolan woman, crossed the Darién as part of a group, with her husband José, 49, and their daughter Ana, 12. They said they were robbed twice after leaving Colombia. Two days before they reached Armila, on the Panamanian side, a group of eight or nine men ambushed them, Rita said, making them kneel, at gunpoint, and robbing them of the belongings in their bags. “Before asking us for money, they divided us by nationality,” José added. The assailants’ faces were covered, he said, some wore jeans, while some wore military-style clothes with camouflage. Two days after the migrants passed Armila, another group of armed men ambushed them, holding them around six hours. This time, the assailants separated the women. José said that he was beaten when he tried to stop them. Two men held a machete to Rita’s neck, then hit her with a rifle butt, knocking her to the ground, and raped her. Afterwards, the two held the machete against Ana and raped her. The Panamanian SENAFRONT officers to whom Rita and Ana tried to report the rapes the next day “showed no empathy,” Rita said. Humanitarian organizations provided them with medical care.
Beatrice Mathieu (pseudonym), a 35-year-old Haitian, crossed the Darién with her husband, as part of a group of 16 migrants. Six men with their faces covered ambushed the group, shooting their guns in the air, she said. The men separated the women. One forced Beatrice, at gunpoint, to take off her clothes, she said, and sexually assaulted her. “I thought they were going to rape me,” she said. The armed men did the same to another five women from her group, she said.
Jean Baptiste Devon (pseudonym), a 42-year-old Haitian man, crossed the Darién Gap with his wife Marie Claire (pseudonym), 30, and their 6-month-old daughter. A group of six to eight armed men ambushed them, he said. The men sexually assaulted her while asking where the money was. “They threatened they were going to rape my wife and daughter.” Jean Baptiste gave them US$50 he had hidden in his sock, and the armed men let them go.
Armed men ambushed Fabiola Moise (pseudonym), a 22-year-old Haitian woman travelling as part of a group, with her husband and 1-year-old son, on their third day in the jungle. The men separated her and other two women from the group. One man shoved her against a tree and sexually assaulted her, she said. A second man joined in the assault, asking her where the money was. She pointed to her boots. They took all the money she had stored there and let her go.
While most survivors of sexual violence in the Darién are women and girls, survivors also include men and boys, according to survivors, humanitarian organizations, and the Colombian and Panamanian Ombudsperson’s Offices.
Ernesto Borja (pseudonym), a 34-year-old Venezuelan man crossed the Darién as part of a group. He said that a couple of hours before arriving in Comegallina, people armed with machetes ambushed the group. They asked all the migrants for US$100 and hit Ernesto, including with rocks, and kicked him in the knee and head with their heavy boots. They made all the migrants take off their clothes. They sexually assaulted all the men and women in the group, saying they were looking for money. After finding US$200 that Ernesto was hiding, they let the group go.
Deaths, Disappearances, and Missing People
Many migrants have lost their lives or disappeared trying to cross the Darién Gap.
SENAFRONT told Human Rights Watch that its officers recovered 65 bodies in 2021 and 51 in 2022. Between January and April 2023, SENAFRONT’s First Oriental Brigade, which operates in the Gap, reported recovering eight more bodies. The Panamanian Attorney General’s Office told Human Rights Watch of 72 investigations arising from bodies found in the Darién between January 2021 and July 2022.
The IOM’s Missing Migrants Project reported that at least 229 people had disappeared in the Darién between January 2021 and September 2023. It also said that “anecdotal reports” suggested that figure represented “only a small fraction of the true number of lives lost.” Current practices for counting missing migrants only cover a portion of those who are missing, mainly relying on information from state officials.
Panamanian Ombudsperson Eduardo Le Blanc told Human Rights Watch that, because Colombia does not register people leaving, there is no way to know who is missing or establish what proportion of migrants and refugees make it to Panama.
Many migrants and asylum seekers told Human Rights Watch that they saw human bodies, sometimes more than a dozen, along the way. Similarly, in October 2023, UNHCR reported that almost 50 percent of the over 114 migrants and asylum seekers surveyed said they saw between 1 and 15 bodies.
The causes of death include drownings and, in some cases, homicides. In many cases, authorities have not determined the cause of death. Of 124 bodies that SENAFONT has recovered since 2021, they listed 74 as drownings, one as a homicide (of a Venezuelan child), and 28 as “unknown.” As of April 2023, authorities had failed to identify the gender of 30 bodies and the nationality of 77.
Human Rights Watch received credible reports that armed men decapitated and dismembered people. Colombia’s and Panama’s Ombudsperson’s Offices, as well as a humanitarian worker, recounted stories of bodies thrown off cliffs or burned.
The Panamanian Attorney General’s Office and SENAFRONT told Human Rights Watch they collaborate to find and bring back bodies for identification. The Attorney General’s Office performs autopsies and collects evidence, to notify embassies or consulates or to create a genetic profile for a database for future comparisons. But Panamanian prosecutors reported difficulties in identifying bodies and causes of death, due to their decomposition.
Drownings are the most frequently reported causes of death, particularly during rainy seasons. Several migrants told Human Rights Watch they crossed rivers by holding ropes tied to trees on either side of the river. Young men helped carry children and personal belongings. “I tied a little Chinese girl to my body and crossed the river,” a young Venezuelan said. “My feet did not touch the riverbed.” The girl’s frail mother was swept away, he said, and two young men jumped in to save her. “Luckily, they could,” he said. “Not all survive.”
Alejandro and Jasmin Velez (pseudonym), both 36, lost their 6-year-old son Isaac (pseudonym) in the Darién. The couple, originally from Venezuela, had headed north from Quito, Ecuador. They set out across the Darién from Acandí, in October 2022 with Isaac and their other sons, ages 10 and 4 years. They travelled with a group of Venezuelans, including colleagues Alejandro met in Quito. As they struggled through the dense jungle, a man in their group, whom they did not known before their journey north, offered to help with Isaac, they told Human Rights Watch, to allow them all to move faster. Reluctantly, they accepted his help. The man carrying Isaac and some other members of the group moved fast, eventually leaving them behind. The river was in flood, and they made camp on its banks, hoping the flow would abate by the next day.
Early the next morning, Alejandro, Jasmin and their two children managed to cross the river. They walked fast, hoping to catch up with the man and Isaac. When they arrived at the first, improvised camp in Panama, their friends said that Isaac had been taken by the river, probably drowned.
Alejandro and Jasmin tried to file a complaint in Bajo Chiquito, but there was no prosecutor there. Two days after the alleged drowning, they were able to file a complaint in Santa Fe, a town 30 minutes away by car from the ERM San Vicente. The prosecutor’s office found and spoke to the man who carried Isaac and his friends, who confirmed that Isaac drowned in the river. That group left Panama shortly after.
It took the authorities eight days, after receiving the complaint, to send search parties to the river. Interpol, the international police organization, published a yellow notice—a global alert for a missing person—on November 30, about a month-and-a-half after Isaac’s disappearance.
As of October 26, 2023, he had not been found.
Sometimes families or groups get separated in the Darién and never learn what happened to the others. Likewise, family members in countries of origin or destination lose contact with a migrant and never learn what happened.
Eduardo González (pseudonym), a 35-year-old Venezuelan, lost track of his wife Rosario (pseudonym) in the Darién. He had asked a man in the group to hold their 3-year-old son Lucas (pseudonym) so that he could help his wife, who was falling behind on the steep trail. But she implored him to leave her and catch up with the man who was holding Lucas. He did so. When Human Rights Watch spoke to him, at the San Vicente ERM, Eduardo and Lucas had been there two days, waiting for her. “She disappeared,” Eduardo said.
The UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances reported, in November 2021, receiving allegations of “disappearances of migrants apparently committed by criminal groups” and “mass graves of unidentified migrants” in the Darién jungle. The committee noted a “lack of investigations into such allegations.” Panamanian authorities have dismissed reports of mass graves.
Dangerous Natural Conditions and Diseases
The dangers of the Darién jungle are notorious, ranging from flash floods and mosquito-borne dengue fever and malaria to falls from cliffs. The steep, slippery climb to the border saps the strength of many migrants and asylum seekers. On the Panamanian side, river crossings, always treacherous, may be deadly during rainy season. Migrants sleep in makeshift camps, exposed to storms, and their food supplies often run low.
Some of the bodies recovered in the Darién Gap have shown evidence of cardiopulmonary arrest or other health problems, SENAFRONT told Human Rights Watch. SENAFRONT officers rescued 143 people, between January 2021 and April 2023, suffering health emergencies including seizures, dehydration, fever, vomiting, fractured bones, and risk of miscarriage.
The Panamanian Ombudsperson’s Office notes gastrointestinal and respiratory diseases and skin conditions from mosquito and other insect bites as risks to migrants’ and asylum seekers’ health. Of the over 35,900 migrants and asylum seekers who received health care from MSF between January and July 2023, around 26 percent had issues in their muscles and bones, followed by skin conditions (21 percent), diarrhea (19 percent) and respiratory conditions (15 percent).
III. How a Lack of Legal Pathways Pushes People to Cross the Darién Gap
Between 2005 and 2020, the number of migrants in Latin America and the Caribbean more than doubled, from around 7 million to 15 million, according to the IOM, making this the region with the highest growth globally of international migrants during that time.
In June 2022, 21 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, spearheaded by US President Joe Biden, includes commitments to strengthen and expand ways for people to safely and legally migrate and seek asylum and to pursue accountability for those who commit abuses against migrants.
However, a growing number of Latin American governments have imposed restrictions, often promoted by the US, on people trying to enter their countries, at times violating their human right to seek asylum. Recently imposed visa requirements, for example, are preventing migrants and asylum seekers from several Latin American countries from flying to Mexico and Central American countries.
Instead of effectively reducing the flow of migrants and asylum seekers, these policies force people on the move to take irregular and dangerous routes. As shown below, data suggests that the visa requirements implemented by Mexico and Central America governments are one factor contributing to the increase of migrants crossing the Darién Gap. Venezuelans and Ecuadorians have migrated to the southern US border in large numbers in recent years but have used routes other than the Darién Gap. Following the implementation of visa requirements for Venezuelans and Ecuadorians, the numbers of people of both nationalities crossing the Darién Gap have skyrocketed, suggesting a relationship between the policy and increased crossings.
Since 2014, a devastating humanitarian crisis and repression and persecution in Venezuela have been causing its people to leave, with some unable or unwilling to return. The Venezuelan exodus represents one of the largest displacement crises in the world, with some 7.7 million living abroad.
At first, people fleeing the country headed mostly to South American countries, such as Colombia, Ecuador, Perú, Chile, and Brazil. But the Covid-19 pandemic and related lockdowns increased poverty and inequality and undermined employment opportunities across South America, prompting many Venezuelans to travel north.These problems were compounded by increased xenophobia in the region, with Venezuelan migrants being scapegoated for problems like insecurity, job losses, and inadequate responses to the pandemic.
Visa restrictions in Mexico and Central America have prevented Venezuelans from bypassing the Darién Gap by flying north. In early 2022, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Belize imposed visa requirements on Venezuelans. Additionally, Panama and Honduras have required visas for Venezuelans since 2017; and Guatemala since 2018. In fact, visa requirements for Venezuelans are common in the Americas; most recently, in May 2023, Suriname began requiring visas for Venezuelans, the 24th country to do so in the Americas.
Despite these restrictions, Venezuelans continue to travel, many to the north. As the graph below shows, the establishment of visa requirements by Mexico, in January 2022, initially coincided with a decrease in encounters of Venezuelans at the US southern border but was soon followed by a drastic increase in the number of people crossing the Darién Gap. Since then, the number of Venezuelans apprehended in Mexico and at the US southern border has mirrored the number crossing the Darién Gap. (The number of people crossing the Darién Gap decreased significantly in October 2022 when the US government announced a humanitarian parole program for Venezuelans, described below, but subsequently increased as many Venezuelans discovered they were not eligible.)
Many Venezuelans told Human Rights Watch that visa requirements had limited their ability to take safer routes.
Sofía Correa (pseudonym) crossed the Darién Gap in 2022 with her teenage son. She decided to leave Venezuela after struggling to “get food on the table,” she said. As a single mom, she worked multiple jobs to ensure her son had everything he needed to keep studying, but the country situation made it “really hard.” In late 2021, she decided it was time to leave Venezuela, but visa restrictions for Venezuelans went into effect soon after in Mexico and Central American countries. “I would have taken a plane, but who is going to give me a visa? This hell was my only option,” she told Human Rights Watch while trying to dry her wet documents on the ground of an Indigenous community in Panama. As she crossed the Darién Gap, she fell into a river. “I thought I was going to die in there,” she said.
When 32-year-old Veronica Pérez (pseudonym) realized she was pregnant in late in 2021, she cried, she said, knowing she would not be able to afford sufficient food, much less doctors and medicines in Venezuela. She needed to take some vitamins and nutritional supplements, but they were too expensive. Her partner, Marco, told Human Rights Watch “it would be impossible for us to obtain the documentation to travel to Mexico,” referring to the passport and visa. They spent days without food, as they crossed the jungle. A group of men assaulted them, taking the few belongings they had. By the time they arrived in Panama, Veronica was bleeding, and she feared she had suffered a miscarriage. She sought medical treatment from humanitarian workers.
The visa requirements are impossible to meet for many Venezuelans. In Venezuela, a passport costs roughly US$200, and some officials or illegal services reportedly charge more. This fee is unaffordable for most Venezuelans, in a country where most people earn a minimum wage of VED$130, around US$4-5 a month.
Passports are hard to obtain even for those who can afford them. Authorities often lack basic materials to issue the documents, such as paper and ink, and sometimes their website does not work. Long suspensions in the issuance of national IDs and difficulties in obtaining birth certificates also hinder access to travel documents and visas.
For Venezuelans who have already left the country, consular services abroad are scarce and unaffordable, making it hard to obtain or renew passports and other official documents, including marriage and birth certificates.
This problem was aggravated in 2019 when many countries in the region recognized Juan Guaidó, the then-president of the National Assembly, as the “legitimate president” of Venezuela, cutting diplomatic and consular ties with the Nicolás Maduro administration. Subsequent consular confusion aggravated legal problems for people on the move. Although Guaidó formally extended the validity of expired passports,access to other documents, such as national IDs, remained a challenge.
Of the 773 Venezuelans surveyed by UNHCR between July 2022 and June 2023 in the Darién Gap, roughly 8 percent travelled with a valid passport. Some 14 percent had an expired passport while more than half (54 percent) had an ID card but no other document, such as passport or residence permit. Around 6 percent had no documents at all.
Haiti faces a long-standing political, security and humanitarian crisis that has left all government branches inoperative, allowing overwhelming impunity for human rights abuses, pushing Haitians to flee the country.
After a devastating earthquake in 2010 and with the opening of job opportunities in the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil, Haitians began moving south, particularly to Brazil and Chile, which they saw as an alternative to the US and Canada, which had dauting migration restrictions.
Haitians face more visa requirements in Latin American countries than people of any other nationality in the Americas. At least 24 governments in the region, including countries in Central and South America, have visa requirements for Haitians, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.
Louis Gerard (pseudonym), lived in Porto Alegre, Brazil, for six years prior to crossing the Darién Gap with his wife, sister, and 4-year-old son. In 2016, Louis left Haiti, leaving his parents and brothers behind. He chose Brazil because “even if it was far, they received migrants well,” he said. In Brazil, Louis worked several jobs to send money back home and to raise his son, a Brazilian national. Things got hard after the Covid-19 pandemic, Louis said, and his boss did not pay him for his work for several months. “There is labor abuse against us. They pay us less,” he said. They left in February 2023 because “Brazil left us with no options.” “We could stay in Mexico, but we cannot get there on a plane because of the visa,” he said. Bandits robbed them as they crossed the Gap, leaving them without money or food.
Antoine Petit (pseudonym), 28, left Haiti in 2017 to go to Chile. “I got there by plane, with my passport because [Chile] did not request a visa then,” he said. Antoine had a work permit for one year, but then it became hard to renew it, and the pandemic also hit him hard financially. He also had a hard time speaking Spanish, so he was frequently discriminated against, he said. With the few savings he had, Antoine started his journey north. This time, he travelled by land because he lacked a visa. Some individuals stole his passport and other belongings at the border between Ecuador and Colombia. “I am aware of the dangers of the crossing,” he said, “but I do not have any other option.”
Visas and passports are often hard for Haitians to obtain. In recent months, media outlets have described people clutching documents and fighting their way through crowded government office buildings in Port-au-Prince to apply for passports. Requests for passports went from 1,500 to 5,000 a day after the US opened a humanitarian parole program for Haitians in January 2023. “Corrupt officials are selling them to women in exchange for sex,” Nicole Philipps, of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, an NGO, told Human Rights Watch.
In a context of fragile democratic institutions, Ecuador has seen a sharp increase in crime and violence by organized crime, which took homicide and extortion rates to unprecedented levels. The insecurity, combined with a depressed economy and longstanding, unaddressed structural problems impacting people’s enjoyment of economic and social rights, has pushed a growing number of migrants and asylum seekers to leave Ecuador and head north.
Since late 2021, several countries in the region, including Mexico and Guatemala, have imposed new visa requirements for Ecuadorians. Ecuadorians must obtain visas to travel to at least 14 countries in the Americas.
Javier Prieto (pseudonym), a 48-year-old carpenter, crossed the Darién in March 2023 with his daughter, 25, and his 7-year-old grandson. In November 2022, criminals had murdered Javier’s brother to steal his phone. The police arrested them, but Javier said one of his friends received a call threatening to kill Javier and the friend once they were released from jail. “Obtaining a visa to the United States is difficult for Ecuadorians; they don’t grant it to us,” Javier said. So, they took a bus and left for Colombia. “It’s heartbreaking to leave the family and witness so much death in the jungle. There were many bodies,” Javier said. He carried his grandson on his shoulders to cross a river in the gap.
Since 2023, Mexico has increased its “economic solvency” requirement for Ecuadorians, requiring that they show that they’ve had a stable job for over a year, or a pension, with monthly income during the last three months of the equivalent of at least US$1,050.
From a young age, Irina Ortega (pseudonym), 27, had to help her mother take care of her six brothers and sisters in Ambato, a city south of Quito. Irina had an informal job in a restaurant for a while. She looked in vain for more secure work to keep helping her family, but eventually, heading north out of Ecuador seemed the only option. “The Darién was my only option because obtaining a visa to travel would have required money that someone without a job [like me] cannot prove,” Irina said. She traveled to Quito in late February, boarding a bus with another 23 people. The journey was not only grueling but more expensive than she had expected, because the people who earn a living moving migrants charge “for everything,” she said.
As the graph below shows, the imposition of visa requirements in Mexico, in September 2021, coincided with an initial decrease in the number of Ecuadorians encountered at the US southern border. However, this decrease was followed by an increase in the number of Ecuadorians crossing the Darién Gap, then an increase in the number of Ecuadorians apprehended in Mexico and encountered at the US-Mexico border. The flow through the Darién Gap increased after the visa requirements were imposed.
The visa requirements are hard to meet for many Ecuadorians. Since early 2022, the country’s Civil Registry has struggled to produce the large number of passports being requested by people trying to leave the country. In February 2023, the Director of the Civil Registry said that while Ecuador had issued 485,000 passports in 2019 and 586,000 in 2022, he estimated that that the office would issue over one million in 2023. In early 2022, the Civil Registry declared an “institutional emergency” due to a shortage of the physical materials required to issue documents, including passports. According to media reports, people could wait up to three months to obtain an appointment for a passport.
Of 135 Ecuadorians surveyed by UNHCR in the Darién between July 2022 and June 2023, roughly 26 percent had a valid passport. Over 74 percent had an ID card and 3 percent had no official documents.
US Influence and Restrictive Migration Policies
US immigration policies affect the migration flow through the Darién Gap and the rights of people who cross it in different ways.
The United States has sought agreements with many Latin American governments, including Mexico and Guatemala, aimed at deterring migration, which, combined with an increase in migration from South America to the United States, appear to have contributed to an increase in the number of people crossing the Darién Gap. In a May 2022 US Senate hearing, an official from the US Department of State said that, when the US sees an increase in people of a certain nationality arriving at the southern border, it communicates that information to governments in the region to “look for areas of partnership.” Countries may then decide “through their own sovereign decision-making process … to impose visas on those nationalities to make sure that those who are arriving by air are not intending … [to immigrate] to the United States,” the official said. The Biden administration then continues “working in partnerships” with other countries “to ensure that route is not diverted” through another country, she said.
The Biden administration has created some new legal pathways for people to seek protection in the United States, which would not require those eligible to cross the Darién. However, these pathways have serious shortcomings that make them inaccessible for large numbers of people.
Since late 2022 and early 2023, Venezuelans, Haitians, Cubans, and Nicaraguans who have a valid passport and a financial sponsor in the United States may apply for a program called humanitarian parole. Those granted parole are given permission to travel to the US by plane and to remain there for a limited amount of time—potentially up to two years. Once in the US, they may apply for permission to work. They may also apply for asylum, which, if granted, could allow them to remain in the country.
Obtaining a passport is difficult for people from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Haiti and may be dangerous or nearly impossible for those who fear being persecuted by their governments.
In June of 2023, the Biden administration also announced that it would create a “Safe Mobility” program to allow people of certain nationalities in Colombia, Costa Rica, and Guatemala to apply for refugee resettlement in the US and to provide migrants and asylum seekers with information about other legal pathways like family reunification, humanitarian parole, and temporary work visas. In October, the Biden administration announced it would establish a “Safe Mobility” office in Ecuador.
Access to the program in Colombia has been extremely limited. The online application portal opened for less than a day in June and again briefly in August. Each time it was shut down after receiving thousands of applications in just a few hours, according to news reports. Only Cubans, Haitians, and Venezuelans who entered Colombia before June 11, 2023, and who have already applied for legal status in Colombia are eligible to use the platform. In September, IOM and UNHCR said the platform would re-open once the 11,000 applications that had been received were processed.
While the Safe Mobility offices in Colombia and Ecuador will be open to Haitian applicants, and while 34 Haitian refugees were admitted to the US in fiscal year 2023, the US Refugee Admissions Program has essentially been closed to Haitians for the previous twelve years (FY 11-FY 22), during which a total of four Haitian refugees were admitted to the United States.
Around 40,000 applications had been received in total between June and September in the three countries where the program operates, and around 3,600 people were “on a path to be allowed into the United States,” according to news reports. The Biden administration set a global refugee resettlement cap of 125,000 people for fiscal year 2023, which ended September 30, 2023. That cap reserved 15,000 spots for refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean, but only 6,312 were admitted, of whom roughly 3,600 came from Central American countries north of the Darién Gap.
These policies take place against a backdrop of US border policies restricting the right to seek asylum in the US. In 2016, the administration of then-US President Barack Obama began limiting the number of asylum seekers allowed per day at certain border crossings, a policy known as “metering.” The administration of subsequent US President Donald Trump expanded this policy and in 2019 began sending asylum seekers back to Mexico to wait while their claims were processed. In 2020, the United States began misusing a public health rule, known as Title 42, to almost entirely shut down access to asylum by rapidly expelling nearly all asylum seekers without hearing their claims.Mexico agreed to receive many non-Mexican asylum seekers the US rapidly removed. Human Rights Watch consistently found that migrants sent to Mexico under these policies were exposed to serious abuses and harms including rape, kidnapping, extortion, assault, and psychological trauma.
In May 2023, the Biden administration implemented a new rule critics call the “Biden asylum ban.” The ban severely limits access to asylum by forcing asylum seekers to wait for months in Mexico to obtain one of a limited number of appointments at a US border crossing through a CBP One, a mobile application developed by the US government. The mobile application is inaccessible to many asylum seekers due to financial, language, technological, and other barriers that disproportionately affect Black and Indigenous asylum seekers, including due to racial bias in CBP One’s facial recognition technology. If non-Mexicans seek asylum at or between a port of entry without having secured an appointment through CBP One, they face a number of harsh penalties, including expedited deportation to Mexico or their country of origin with a 5-year bar on return to the United States.
In July 2023, a federal judge concluded that the asylum ban had been improperly imposed and should not be enforced, although he stayed his order pending appeal. This means the ban is likely to remain in effect while an appellate court considers the case.
The principle of nonrefoulement under international human rights law forbids governments from sending people to a country where they would be threatened by torture, persecution, or other serious harms. However, the Biden administration continues to send some asylum seekers back to countries in violation of this principle, including Haitians and, since October 2023, Venezuelans who are not eligible for temporary protection status.
The increasing scale and complexity of migration in the Americas requires a collective and concerted response. A carefully designed, rights-respecting regional approach would offer a fair and efficient way to determine which states are responsible for examining asylum claims and protecting refugees. As a practical matter, such a mechanism could and should distribute costs equitably and offer participating states other incentives for sharing responsibility. Legal representation, accommodation, and work authorization while asylum claims are pending should be included as critical common elements of this mechanism. Additionally, the essential elements of this collective approach should be reflected in a new regional agreement that builds on the Cartagena Declaration.
At the same time, states need not and should not wait for the development of a regional approach. They should act now in line with 2022 Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection to reverse existing laws, policies, and practices that effectively prevent access to asylum and force people into dangerous crossings. In line with recommendations by UNHCR and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, each state in the region should ensure that its legislation, policies, and practices safeguard access to asylum, including by guaranteeing legal representation, accommodation and other assistance, and access to work for those who seek asylum, and include robust protections against refoulement.
Human Rights Watch calls on states and international actors to undertake the following specific steps to address the abuses identified in this report.
To all governments in the Americas
- Seize the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration to discuss the increasing immigration challenges in the region, as reflected in the Darién Gap, and establish specific commitments to ensure the rights of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in the hemisphere, including:
- Implementing a region-wide temporary protection regime that would grant all Venezuelans and Haitians temporary legal status for a reasonable, and renewable term, even if they may not qualify for refugee status under domestic law.
- Applying the Cartagena Declaration’s expanded refugee definition for individual asylum seekers to enable the granting of asylum to people who have fled generalized violence, internal conflicts, foreign aggression, massive violation of human rights, or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.
- Creating an equitable and rights-focused regional mechanism to determine states responsible for examining asylum claims and protecting refugees. The mechanism should include incentives to encourage asylum seekers and refugees to stay, such as legal representation, accommodation, and swift access to the right to work while asylum claims are pending. Criteria for determining the country responsible for examining asylum claims should consider individual factors, like social or family ties and individual choices, to the extent possible. Additionally, it should distribute costs equitably and offer member states incentives for sharing responsibility.
- Establishing a regional agreement, building on the Cartagena Declaration, that unifies processes and standards for seeking and obtaining legal status, right to work, and refugee status, among others.
- Improving domestic asylum systems by, when relevant, removing impediments to presenting asylum claims, increasing the number and competency of national staff analyzing asylum claims, ensuring that procedures are both fair and efficient, providing physical protection, accommodation, work authorization, and other social support to applicants while their asylum claims are pending, and ensuring the implementation of the Cartagena Declaration when recognized under domestic law.
- Increasing efforts to integrate migrants and refugees, particularly in the workforce, including by easing requirements to recognize their education certificates and diplomas obtained abroad and developing voluntary local and regional relocation plans that match migrants and refugees with job opportunities in the private and public sector.
- Increasing efforts to fight xenophobia and discrimination, including through programs directed at changing the national and regional perception about migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.
- Reversing measures that effectively prevent access to asylum and push people into dangerous crossings, in line with the 2022 Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, including through a progressive liberalization of visa requirements imposed by Mexico and Central American governments to Venezuelans, Haitians, Cubans, and Ecuadorians and by creating easily accessible visa facilitation regimes or other measures for people legally staying in the country, taking into account the need for these mechanisms to be economically accessible and ensuring access to people who may not have all required documentation for reasons beyond their control.
- Work within the Organization of American States, including its Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and domestic human rights experts and organizations to ensure a prompt and rights-respecting response to emerging human rights crises in the region that could trigger new migration waves.
To the US Government
Ensure Safe and Legal Pathways and Respect the Right to Asylum
- Expand legal, orderly, and safe pathways for people to migrate to the United States, including by:
- Incorporating into the Immigration and Nationality Act the expanded definition of refugees contained in the Cartagena Declaration or a comparable standard of complementary protection that includes individuals fleeing violence or other exceptional situations that expose them to a real risk of serious harm.
- Eliminating requirements that make humanitarian parole inaccessible to many mostly low-income Venezuelans, Cubans, and Haitians, including the need to have a financial sponsor in the United States and a valid passport.
- Considering expanding the humanitarian parole program to people from other nationalities, including Ecuadorians.
- Working with Colombia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and other countries to significantly expand the capacity of the Safe Mobility Offices, increasing the number of appointments and reducing waiting times.
- Meeting the 125,000 refugee admissions target for fiscal year 2024, including 25,000 to 50,000 refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean.
- Extending and re-designating Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Venezuelans and Haitians, as needed.
- Considering other safe and legal avenues, such as family reunification visas; expanded temporary work visas; and temporary visas for witnesses of serious crimes as enumerated in the eligibility criteria for U visas.
- Rescind the asylum ban, restore access to asylum, and reform the immigration system so that it regulates migration effectively while protecting fundamental rights.
- Suspend deportations or expulsions to Haiti because of the general risk of serious or irreparable harm to returnees.
- Do not press Mexico, Central American, and other governments to establish additional visa requirements that undermine the right to seek asylum and force people to use dangerous crossings, such as the Darién Gap.
Help Address Root Causes of Migration
- Provide financial support to meaningful efforts by South American governments to expand access to asylum, carry out processes to regularize migration status, implement integration strategies, especially to ensure enjoyment of economic rights, and support campaigns and public policies directed at reducing xenophobia and discrimination.
- Ensure that financial or technical assistance provided to other countries for the purpose of strengthening border control and combating people-smuggling respects for the rights of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees and local communities and does not establish abusive restrictions on movement.
To the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration
- Establish an inter-agency coordination mechanism in Panama to respond to the challenges of increased migration flows, following the example of the GIFMM in Colombia and ensuring that the mechanism has the capacity to identify gaps in assistance and where available donor funds should be directed.
- Building on the experience of the Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (R4V), ensure monitoring, documentation, and analysis of migration of people of other nationalities, including Haitians, Cubans, and Ecuadorians.
- Analyze country-of-origin conditions and provide guidance to states on Ecuadorians’ asylum claims.
- Increase information available to migrants and asylum seekers in the Darién Gap about regional immigration policies and asylum systems, including in the US, as well as information about the journey north before and after migrants and asylum seekers cross the Darién Gap.
- Continue to support the Quito Process and other regional initiatives aimed at ensuring safe and complementary pathways, regularization, and integration programs.
- Increase technical and economic support to migration authorities and asylum systems throughout the region.
To all international donors
- Fund credible efforts to improve the humanitarian response in the Darién Gap, including to ensure dignified migration centers and other shelters, increase humanitarian aid, improving the conditions in Bajo Chiquito and Canaán Membrillo, and help prevent and investigate abuses, particularly sexual violence, against migrants.
- Increase funding for the 2023-24 Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan (RMRP) and ensure similar efforts for Haitian and other migrants and refugees in South America.
- Support credible efforts to increase government presence and the enjoyment of economic and social rights in Colombia’s Urabá and Panama’s Darién regions.
To Members of the United Nations Human Rights Council
- Support establishment of a mechanism to monitor rights abuses at borders, as called for by civil society and the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants at the 53rd session of the Human Rights Council.
To the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
- Closely monitor and publicly report on the human rights situation in the Darién Gap, publicly express concern about restrictive immigration policies and protection gaps that put the rights of migrants and refugees at risk and call on states to end those policies and practices.
To the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants
- Conduct visits to the Darién Gap, as in principle permitted under Panama’s and Colombia’s standing invitation to Special Procedures, to document the impact of restrictive immigration policies and protection gaps on migrants’ and refugees’ rights, and report to the Human Rights Council on the situation.
To the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
- Closely monitor and publicly report on the human rights situation in the Darién Gap, publicly express concern about restrictive immigration policies and protection gaps that put migrants’ and refugees’ rights at risk and call on states to end those policies and practices.
This report was written by Martina Rapido Ragozzino, Americas senior research assistant; and Juan Pappier, Americas deputy director.
The report is based on research conducted by a team of Human Rights Watch research staff members: Stephania López, Americas research assistant; Nathalye Cotrino, Crisis and Conflict researcher; Maya Shack, consultant; Martina Rapido Ragozzino; and Juan Pappier.
It was reviewed and edited by Juanita Goebertus, Americas director; Margaret Knox, senior editor/researcher; Bill Frelick, director, Refugees and Migrants Rights Division; Alison Leal Parker, managing director, US Program; Vicki Gaubeca, associate director, US Program; Nicole Widdersheim, deputy director, Washington advocacy; Lucy McKernan, deputy director, Geneva advocacy; Brian Root, senior quantitative analyst; Cristian González, researcher, LGBT Rights Program; Cristina Quiroz, researcher, Women’s Rights Division; and Tyler Mattiace, Mexico researcher. Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno and Michael Bochenek provided program and legal review, respectively.
Americas Division associate Johan Romero contributed to the report production. The report was prepared for publication by Travis Carr, publications officer; Fitzroy Hepkins, administrative manager; and José Martínez, senior administration coordinator.
Human Rights Watch would like to thank human rights, migrants’ rights, humanitarian, and UN organizations that provided important information for this research. We are also grateful to Patricia Fagen and Caitlyn Yates for reviewing an earlier version of this report.
Above all, we are deeply grateful to the migrants and refugees who, despite their perilous and uncertain journey, have generously shared their stories with us.