US delegation heading to Panama next week to discuss migration

US Department of State says regional officials will attend two-day conference on ‘safe, orderly, and humane migration’.

Migrants walking
Many asylum seekers hoping to reach the United States head to Colombia and then cross into Panama before heading north towards the US-Mexico border [File: Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

A delegation of United States officials led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Panama next week to attend a conference of regional foreign ministers on migration, the Department of State has said.

In a statement on Friday, the department said Blinken will meet with Panamanian President Laurentino Cortizo Cohen and Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes on his two-day visit. US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas will also be on the trip.

During the conference, scheduled to begin on Tuesday, officials will discuss economic recovery, migration, protection for refugees, asylum seekers, anti-corruption efforts, and support for civil society, the statement said.

“Secretary Blinken and representatives of regional governments participating in the Ministerial will discuss collaboration on safe, orderly, and humane migration throughout our hemisphere,” according to the statement.

The conference comes after the Biden administration this month announced that on May 23, it will lift a policy along the US-Mexico border that has allowed American officials to rapidly expel most asylum seekers, without giving them a chance to apply for protection in the US.

Ending the use of the pandemic-era restriction, known as “Title 42”, is expected to lead to a rise in arrivals at the border. DHS has said it is preparing for the surge by deploying additional resources and personnel.

But in recent years, the US has sought the cooperation of transit countries in the Americas region to help stem the flow of people heading towards the US.

In March, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas met officials in Mexico and Costa Rica.

The majority of asylum seekers arriving at the US’s southern border are from the so-called “Northern Triangle“: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. But people from Haiti, as well as countries in South America, have been increasingly making their way to the US border, as well.

Migrant woman carrying child
The Department of Homeland Security says it is making arrangements to handle a likely surge in the number of people arriving at the southern US border [File: Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

Most migrants heading towards the US cross through Panama’s southern border with Colombia, trekking through the Darien Gap, a notoriously dangerous jungle area controlled by criminal groups known for acts of violence, including sexual abuse and robbery.

In October, the presidents of Panama, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic asked for US assistance in stemming the flow of thousands of migrants crossing the Darien Gap.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said in March that 8,456 people had made the treacherous journey in January and February of this year – nearly triple the number compared with the same period in 2021.

The prospects of large numbers of people streaming to the southern US border is a crucial political issue for US President Joe Biden before the midterm elections in November.

His Republican rivals have seized on the record-high numbers of arrivals to attack Biden. They have blamed the increase on his reversal of several of former President Donald Trump’s restrictive anti-immigration policies.

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters