In November of last year, Jesús, a 33-year-old man from the Venezuelan state of Falcón, spent 10 days traversing the Darién Gap – the treacherous stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama – with his wife and two-year-old son. They were but three of the nearly 250,000 people who survived the crossing in 2022, most of them hoping to eventually reach the United States several thousand kilometres to the north.
I spoke with Jesús recently in the town of Metetí in Panama’s Darién province, where he is washing cars in an attempt to scrape together funds for his family’s onward journey. He recounted to me how, at one point in the jungle, he had been tumbling down a near-vertical hill of mud and had frantically grabbed what he thought was a tree root – but which turned out to be a hand belonging to a human corpse. He had been disconcerted at first, he said, but had then thought to himself: “That hand saved my life.”
The same cannot be said for US President Joe Biden, who, despite continuously promising to lend a helping hand to persons seeking refuge, is currently working to dismantle the very concept of asylum – in contravention of both international and domestic law. On February 21, the Biden administration unveiled its proposed scheme to deal with the predicted upsurge in arrivals to the southern US border following the scheduled expiration of Title 42 in May. Title 42, of course, is the charming Donald Trump-era policy that, using the coronavirus pandemic as a transparently disingenuous pretext, has enabled the US to summarily expel asylum seekers without allowing them to apply for asylum.
Biden’s new rule – which has been likened to Trump’s own “transit ban”, a policy that was struck down in the federal court – would largely eliminate the possibility of asylum for folks who “circumvent available, established pathways to lawful migration … and also fail to seek protection in a country through which they traveled” before reaching the US. And while the rule comes accompanied by the provision that the “presumption of asylum ineligibility” is always “rebuttable” and subject to “specified exceptions”, this is sort of the equivalent of suggesting that someone who has been eaten by a shark will have the opportunity to contest the arrangement.
To be sure, it is nothing less than absurdly barbaric to demand that refuge seekers – many of whom must cross the Darién Gap after travelling from as far afield as Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Burkina Faso – seek “protection” in another country before reaching the US. It takes a sinister imagination to believe that refugees can find protection in countries like Honduras or El Salvador – which regularly find themselves on the list of world homicide capitals and which produce their own surpluses of asylum seekers in the first place. It is equally absurd to claim that there are sufficient “pathways to lawful migration” for the poor and vulnerable; if that were the case, you wouldn’t see hundreds of thousands of people risking their lives in the Darién. Lawful migration was not an option for Jesús and his family, just as it was not an option for the owner of the hand that saved him.
Nor was it an option for the Venezuelan extended family I met on the side of the highway in Metetí. They had just emerged from 10 days in the Darién Gap with a one-year-old baby in tow and their own inventory of cadavers encountered in the jungle. They reported one particularly heart-wrenching scene, which had entailed a dead mother, two dead children and a man – presumably the desperate father – who had hanged himself nearby. The family informed me that they were walking to the United States as their lives in Venezuela were not presently sustainable, and requested recommendations on where in the US they might go to perform farm work. They were walking, they said, because they lacked the $40 per person that the Panamanian government is charging “illegal” migrants for the luxury of being bussed north and dumped on the border with Costa Rica – a form of official extortion that is not without its own life-threatening aspects. In mid-February, one of these buses crashed, killing some 41 people.
In Metetí I also spoke with Tamara Guillermo, field coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF), which provides primary and mental healthcare services in the region’s two migrant reception centres – work that is all the more necessary in light of recent allegations that Panamanian authorities are committing sexual and other abuses against migrants. She observed that the trans-Darién trajectory would be difficult enough “for an Olympic athlete”, much less unprepared and improperly equipped humans fleeing all manner of calamities in their respective countries. She then recapped the litany of horrors that transpire in the jungle, from rampant rapes and continuous assault and robbery to separated families, disappearances, and killings – some involving decapitations.
Condemning the criminalisation of migrants for simply exercising their “right to pursue a better life”, Guillermo stressed that the current setup in the Darién Gap constitutes a total violation of the “dignity” of people who have already suffered relentlessly. For many, she said, “the only thing waiting for them at home is death.” Now, Biden’s proposed asylum ban certainly won’t be helping anything on the whole dignity front – not that the US was ever much into such things anyway. Indeed, the United States’ own history of politically and economically ravaging other countries has played a significant role in fuelling the “migrant crisis” – and in making “home” so often a place of death.
In his book The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the US-Mexican Border and Beyond, journalist John Washington notes that, according to the US government, “you are eligible for asylum only if you have suffered persecution on account of an immutable characteristic – your race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or your membership in a particular social group”. But what if poverty is the immutable characteristic – and the US itself has had a strong hand in making it so? During my stay in the Darién region, I managed to visit the tiny Indigenous village of Bajo Chiquito on the Tuquesa River, the first point of arrival for most people exiting the Darién Gap. I entered undetected by Panamanian migration and National Border Service officials, who are not keen on having the camp’s inhumane conditions exposed to the outside world.
There I chatted with an amiable group of young Colombian and Venezuelan men endeavouring to cook rice in river water over a pitiful fire, who declared that they would not go back in that jungle for a million dollars. The otherworldly stench of decomposing bodies had served as a constant reminder of the proximity of death – and, while there was still much undignified and deadly road ahead, there was no turning back now. While I was talking to the young men, three long canoes packed with refuge seekers from Haiti, Ecuador and an array of other nations pulled up to Bajo Chiquito. So much for available “pathways to lawful migration”. And as the Darién becomes an ever more populated graveyard for folks who are merely trying to live, it’s safe to say Biden is going down a very wrong path.