Migration hits Panama and Costa Rica

By Martin Mowforth

Both Panama and Costa Rica are under pressure from the wave of migrants passing through the inhospitable Darién Gap at the south of the region heading, mostly, for the border between Mexico and the United States, to the north of the region. In the years from 2014 to 2020, we heard of the primary sources of immigration to the US being the Central American countries of the so-called Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. But in more recent years, the wave of migrants from the Northern Triangle has been swollen by a new wave originating from south of the Central American region.

According to official sources in Panama, up to early September 2023, more than 348,000 people had crossed the Darién Gap into Panama, a figure 100,000 greater than the figure for the whole of 2022. Of these, 60,000 were children. Almost a half of this total were Venezuelan, and other significant South American and Caribbean nationalities included Haitians, Ecuadoreans and Colombians. There was also a growing number of people from China and the African continent, especially from Cameroon.

In September, the government of Panama announced that it aimed to intensify its deportation of migrants who enter the country via the Darién Gap from Colombia in an effort to put a stop to irregular immigration into the country. These numbers continue to increase despite the fact that the US has warned that it will not allow entry into the US to anyone who entered Panama through irregular channels.

The Panamanian director of Migration, Samira Gozaine, stated that “within our capability and our budget, we shall increase actions to gradually and progressively increase the deportations and expulsions of migrants who irregularly enter the country.” But she warned of a lack of resources to carry out the newly strengthened policy to the full: “obviously we have limited resources. If 3,000 people enter, we would like to deport those 3,000, but that’s not an operational possibility.”

The Panamanian government has also said that it will strengthen security measures in the frontier settlements and will change the locations of some police control posts. When they cross the frontier, the migrants still have to contend with wild animals, wide rivers, dense jungle and criminal gangs, although with the help of international organisations the government has established a number of posts throughout the country to help migrants.

In September this year, the Costa Rican government declared a state of emergency in response to the excessive number of migrants (more than 386,000 since January) who have entered the country through its southern border with Panama.

Similar to the efforts of the Panamanian government, the Costa Rican President Rodrigo Chaves announced that deportations and security measures would be increased. Rights groups such as the Human Rights Watch, on the other hand, described these measures as: “misguided and will contribute to more precarious situations for migrants in transit.”

Human Rights Watch Americas director Juanita Goebertus explained that the most serious issue underlying this hardened policy is that “people whose lives are at risk, whose personal integrity is at risk, cannot access the protections they have a right to.” Even former Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla described the state of emergency as “misguided” and “highly counterproductive”.

In July, the University of Costa Rica’s fact-checking project, Doble Check, found that President Chaves’ public statements about foreigners in the country “presented a distorted image of the number of migrants in Costa Rica and the state resources directed toward that population,” while failing to recognise the economic contributions made by immigrants.

The United Nations Office for International Migration has called for collective action between Central American governments to provide humanitarian assistance.


  • Manuel Bermúdez, 08.09.23, ‘Panamá seeks to put a stop to the passage of irregular immigrants through the Darién jungle’, Semanario Universidad, San José.
  • NACLA staff, 28.09.23, Untitled email note, North American Congress on Latin America, New York.
  • United Nations News, 05.09.23, ‘Record crossings of perilous Darién Gap underscores need for safe migration pathways’, United Nations.