New U.S. migrant rules push down foot traffic in Colombia-Panama jungle, says IOM chief

New U.S. migrant rules push down foot traffic in Colombia-Panama jungle, says IOM chief

By Anthony Boadle

BRASILIA (Reuters) – The number of people making a perilous crossing on foot of the Darien Gap jungle between Colombia and Panama as they head north to try to get to the United States has dropped significantly since the U.S. government tightened its rules on migrants, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.

Earlier this month Washington expanded COVID-19 pandemic-era restrictions to include migrants from Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua and not just Venezuelans as people who can be expelled back to Mexico if caught crossing the border into the United States. The restrictions are known as Title 42.

IOM Director General Antonio Vitorino said the measure was discouraging people from heading north.

“There was a drop in the numbers of people that cross the Darien in the first three weeks of January with the new rules for Title 42 adopted by the U.S. administration,” he told Reuters on Friday.

Vitorino said 133,000 people made the Darien crossing in 2021, the same number as in the whole previous 10 years, and the crossings almost doubled to 250,000 last year, mostly Venezuelan migrants but also Haitians.

The migrants have suffered murders and rape, and been subjected to extortion and prostitution by armed gangs crossing through dense jungle between Colombia and Panama, he said.

They arrive in Panama extremely dehydrated and in terrible medical conditions, especially the women and children, he added.

Vitorino also noted what he called a “serious humanitarian crisis” at the U.S.-Mexico border with the high number of migrants barred from entering the United States or expelled back to Mexico.

“Most of the 75 shelters IOM supports at the border are overcrowded. People need everything: shelter, food, water, warm clothes,” he said.

According to the IOM, 6 million Venezuelans have left their country, mostly migrating to Latin American neighbors Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil. Others set off on the uncertain journey north to try to get into the United States.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said on Wednesday that the number of migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border dropped off dramatically from December to January following the new rules.

The Biden administration expanded the Title 42 program as it sought to cope with record numbers of migrants attempting to cross the border, at the same time expanding legal pathways to enter the United States.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in December that the policy should stay in place as it considers a legal challenge to the policy. Vitorino said the IOM is waiting for the Supreme Court to clarify its position on the new rules.

Under the new rules, up to 30,000 migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela may enter the United States per month with a two-year temporary humanitarian “parole.”

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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