Mexico/Central America: New visa restrictions harm Venezuelans

(New York) – New visa restrictions from several countries in the Americas have led to a significant increase in the number of Venezuelans crossing a dangerous jungle area on the border between Colombia and Panama, known as the Darién Gap, exposing them to egregious abuses, Human Rights Watch said today.

The number of Venezuelans crossing the Darien Gap into the North American continent has skyrocketed over the past year as countries have imposed visa restrictions, making it difficult for Venezuelans to fly to Mexico and Central America. Venezuelans have overtaken Cubans and Haitians as the largest national group to cross in 2022, accounting for more than a third of all migrants who do so. During their multi-day trek across the gap, migrants of all nationalities are frequently the victims of serious robbery and abuse, including rape. They also face dangerous natural conditions, such as fast-flowing rivers and wild animals.

“People fleeing human rights crises in countries in the region should have a safe and orderly way to seek protection abroad,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, acting Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The leaders who recently signed the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection must honor their commitment by urgently reversing immigration measures that force people to make dangerous crossings.”

On June 10, 2022, 20 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 the ways people can migrate and seek asylum safely and legally, and to hold accountable those who abuse migrants. .

In April and May, Human Rights Watch traveled to Necoclí, in Colombia; and Metetí, Canaán Membrillo and David, in Panama, to document the abuses against migrants and asylum seekers of all nationalities who cross the Darién Gap, and evaluate the systems of the authorities to protect migrants and guarantee access to Justice. Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 100 migrants and asylum seekers, including dozens of Venezuelans, as well as humanitarian workers and Panamanian government officials, including Attorney General Javier Caraballo, Vice Minister of Health Ivette Berrío, and Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Marta Elida Gordon.

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Most of the migrants who make the perilous journey across the Darien Gap do so because they cannot obtain visas to travel north by plane. For years, most have been Cubans and Haitians. Since January 2022, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Belize have imposed new visa requirements on people from countries whose citizens have been arriving at the US southern border in greater numbers, including Venezuelans. Many Venezuelans say they travel through the Darien Gap because these visa requirements have limited their ability to take safer routes to seek protection in the United States.

In some cases, governments supposedly they have imposed these new immigration restrictions in response to pressure from the United States. in a May 2022 US Senate Hearing, a State Department official said that when the US sees an increase in the arrival of people of a certain nationality at the southern border, it communicates that information to the governments of the region to “seek areas of association.” Countries can then decide “through their own sovereign decision-making process… to impose visas on those nationalities to ensure that those arriving by air do not intend… [to immigrate] to the United States,” the official said. The Biden administration then continues to “work in partnership” with other countries “to ensure that the route is not diverted” through another country, he said.

In 2021, a record 133,000 people crossed the Darién Gap, including 29,000 children, according to official data from Panamanian authorities. In the first four months of 2022, the number of migrants and asylum seekers crossing the gap nearly doubled from the same months in 2021. Panamanian authorities told Human Rights Watch that the total number of migrants crossing the gap is expected to cross the gap increases in 2022.

Most Venezuelans who crossed the divide told Human Rights Watch that they were fleeing harsh economic conditions in their country and difficulty accessing basic needs, particularly medicine and food, due to the country’s humanitarian emergency. Some said government authorities, security forces or gangs had persecuted them. While some had lived in other Latin American countries immediately prior to their trip, many others said they had left Venezuela in recent weeks.

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Flying to Mexico or Central America is not only safer than traveling overland, it’s probably cheaper, according to interviews with migrants. The trip to the Darien Gap could cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Migrants crossing the Darien Gap are currently taking two routes, Human Rights Watch found. Some pay a fee of US$300 per passenger for a boat from Capurganá, Colombia, to Carreto, Panama, and walk 2-5 days through the jungle, a safer route, where fewer abuses have been reported. Those who cannot pay that amount walk from 6 to 10 days through the jungle from Capurganá.

Many migrants who have taken this longer route said they were assaulted by gangs who robbed and threatened them. Between January and May, Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, MSF) provided medical and psychological assistance to 89 women of various nationalities who suffered sexual abuse in the Darién Gap.

Aid workers said that because many Venezuelan migrants lack enough money, they are more likely to take the longer and more dangerous route. Some sleep on a beach in Necoclí, Colombia, for several days until they can earn enough money, often by picking up trash, to continue their journey.

Most of the unaccompanied children taking the Darien Gap route are Venezuelan, according to Panamanian authorities and aid workers. Some began their journey without their parents; others lost contact with them along the way.

A 21-year-old Venezuelan woman who crossed the Darien Gap with four friends in April on her way to the United States said she fled Venezuela because of “the grave situation in the country.” A group of men wearing black hoods and carrying a ‘machete’ robbed them as they crossed. The woman and her friends said they originally planned to fly to Mexico, but decided to take the Darien route after visa requirements went into effect.

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A 32-year-old pregnant woman said she fled Venezuela with her partner because they couldn’t get enough food and medicine. A group of men assaulted them in the jungle. Days went by without eating. She said that she was bleeding when she arrived in Panama and received medical treatment from aid workers there.

“It would be impossible for us to obtain the documentation to travel regularly to Mexico,” said her partner, referring to both the Venezuelan documentation and the visa. Human Rights Watch investigators saw them days later, crossing into Costa Rica and continuing their journey to the US.

The number of Venezuelans detained by Mexican immigration authorities after entering the country irregularly has increased dramatically since the new visa requirements took effect. According to official figures, Mexican authorities detained 6,666 Venezuelans in the first four months of 2022, compared to 96 in the same four months of 2021.

The number of Venezuelans seeking asylum in Mexico has also increased. In the first four months of 2022, 4,270 applied, compared to 6,192 in all of 2021. Asylum seekers in Mexico are often forced to wait months or years in dire conditions to gain legal status.

Visa requirements are particularly difficult to meet for Venezuelans who often do not have passports or other required documentation. Official documents—including marriage and birth certificates— are difficult to obtain in Venezuela and abroad, given that Venezuelan consular services are scarce. While the official fee to obtain a passport in Venezuela is approximately US$200, some officials charge more. This rate is unaffordable for most Venezuelans, who are paid the minimum wage of around US$28 a month.

“The immigration restrictions imposed by the governments of Mexico and Central America have not deterred thousands of migrants from leaving their homes to seek protection abroad,” said Taraciuk Broner. “Instead, they have led many to take dangerous and irregular routes, where they face serious risks and often experience abuse and violence.”