The United States-Mexico border is the world’s deadliest land route for migrants, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) says, with at least 686 deaths and disappearances recorded there last year.
In a statement on Tuesday, the IOM said the figure – which is likely an undercount due to a lack of official data – represented nearly half of the 1,457 migrant deaths and disappearances recorded throughout the Americas in 2022.
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Last year marked the deadliest year in the region since at least 2014, when the United Nations agency began documenting deaths and disappearances due to migration.
“These alarming figures are a stark reminder of the need for decisive action by states,” said Michele Klein Solomon, the IOM’s regional director for Central and North America and the Caribbean.
“Enhancing data collection is crucial. Ultimately, what is needed is for countries to act on the data to ensure safe, regular migration routes are accessible.”
Hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers have taken long and perilous paths through South and Central America and Mexico in hopes of reaching the US border to apply for protection.
Many are fleeing rampant gang violence, poverty, political persecution and other crises in their home countries.
With record numbers of arrivals at the border since he took office in early 2021, US President Joe Biden has put new restrictions in place and launched new programmes that aim to de-incentivise people from trying to apply for asylum at the frontier.
That includes a rule that disqualifies people from seeking asylum in the US if they did not first apply in countries they crossed earlier in their journeys, which rights groups have slammed as an “asylum ban”.
The Biden administration also has opened so-called “safe mobility” centres in Latin America to allow asylum seekers to apply for US protection in third countries instead of at the border with Mexico.
But migrants and asylum seekers continue to head to the border despite the new programmes due to safety concerns in the region and delays in asylum processing, and experts and human rights advocates have called on Washington to respect the right to seek asylum there.
On Tuesday, the IOM reported that 307 of the deaths last year at the US-Mexico border were linked to attempted crossings of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts.
Across the Americas, migration routes in the Caribbean saw a “concerning” uptick in deaths, with 350 documented last year compared with 245 in 2021, the agency said. Most of the migrants who died in the Caribbean were from the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba.
A dangerous jungle passage between Panama and Colombia known as the Darien Gap, which is rife with violence and natural hazards, including insects, snakes and unpredictable terrain, also recorded 141 migrant deaths last year.
“The remote and dangerous nature of this area and the presence of criminal gangs along the route means that this figure may not represent the actual number of lives lost,” the IOM said.
Surveys of those who crossed the Darien Gap showed that one in 25 respondents said someone they were travelling with had gone missing, the agency added. Nearly 250,000 migrants and asylum seekers crossed last year – almost double the number of people who took the route in 2021.
“The fact that we know so little about migrants who disappear in the Americas is a grim reality,” said Marcelo Pisani, the IOM’s regional director for South America. “The impacts on the families left behind to search endlessly for a lost loved one are profound.”