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Panama to Begin Migrant Repatriations Following US Agreement

An American official said Tuesday that repatriations of undocumented US-bound migrants will start from Panama “in the coming weeks” following an agreement reached with the Central American country’s new president. Jose Raul Mulino has vowed to close the dangerous migration route through the Darien jungle between Colombia and Panama, and announced after he was sworn in Monday that his country would no longer be a migrant “transit” point. 

Mulino said Panama “cannot continue to finance the economic cost of illegal migration.”  After Monday’s investiture ceremony, Panama signed an agreement with President Joe Biden’s top border official, Alejandro Mayorkas, that pledges US funding for migrant repatriation — a move Washington hopes will deter irregular crossings across its southern border. 

On Tuesday, US State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central America Eric Jacobstein told reporters in a teleconference from Washington that repatriations would start “in the coming weeks.”  He did not say from where the repatriation flights would depart, or their destination.

Under the agreement, the United States would allocate $6 million for repatriations, including purchasing plane tickets.  The Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama has become a key corridor for migrants heading from South America through Central America and Mexico in hopes of reaching the United States and a chance at a better life. 

Despite facing dense jungle, treacherous terrain, wild animals and violent criminal gangs, more than half a million undocumented migrants passed through the gap last year.  Migration is a key campaign issue ahead of US presidential elections in November. Incumbent Joe Biden last month issued an order to shut down the border to asylum seekers once daily limits are hit.

“By returning such individuals to their country of origin, we will help deter irregular migration in the region and at our Southern border and halt the enrichment of malign smuggling networks that prey on vulnerable migrants,” US National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson in a statement Monday. 

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