Migration to and through Panamá
Opening note: I’ve briefly discussed migration to and through Panamá with friends and family living in Panamá, but not enough to represent or iterate their opinions. Additionally, I don’t like referring to people that live in the United States as Americans, because people that live in Central and South America can also be referred to as Americans, but for the sake of this piece I will refer to residents in the U.S. as American.
Brief History of Migration to Panama
Similar to Americans, Panamanians have a history of family heritage rooted in migration. In a previous article, A Window into Afro Panamanian Art, I discussed the migration of West Indians to Panama from 1850–1915. In total, approximately 130,000 people from the British West Indies traveled to and remained in Panama. They settled mostly in urban areas near the canal: Panama City and Colón City. During this period of time, Panamá saw a lot of change; from increased economic capacity due to transcontinental railroad and Panama Canal construction, to the change in the ethnic and racial demographics. With the change in ethnic and racial makeup, xenophobia and racial discrimination towards Caribbean migrants and their descendants followed.
Caribbean migration to Panamá played a pivotal role in shaping the country’s economic, athletic, and social identity. However, it was just a small part of Panamá’s migration history. Below is a brief timeline displaying how I think of Panamá’s migration history:
- European colonizers (1513–1851)
- Forced migration of enslaved Africans ( –1851)
- Caribbean migration (1850–1915)
- American military personnel and Zonians (1903–1999)
- American & European business personnel concurrently with Latin America’s commodity driven economic boom (2004–2017 )
- African, Central American, Cuban, Haitian, and Venezuelan migration to and through Panamá (2011–Present)
Current Migration from Africa, Central America, Cuba, Haiti and Venezuela (2011–Present)
More recently, Panamá has seen migration from Africa, Central America, Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela. Before 2011, many South American countries had lax visa requirements and open labor markets. As it became more difficult to travel directly to the U.S. or Mexico, migrants increasingly began their journeys to northern countries in South America. Additionally, Brazil was building infrastructure for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics which was constructed using a small percentage of Haitian migrant labor. However, in the past decade, World Cup and Olympic construction was completed, visa requirements stiffened, and labor markets tightened. Whether due to political turmoil, poverty, or xenophobia, migrants have been forced to continue their journey north to the U.S., Canada, and increasingly Mexico. For migrants from Africa, Cuba, and Haiti this may have been their plan all along.
Panamá refers to this spike in migration as irregular migration and when people start their journey in Africa, Cuba, or Haiti they are referred to as extracontinental migrants. Oriel Benitez, Director General of SENAFRONT (Panamá’s border patrol), stated that irregular migration began in 2011. Up to 2011, Panamá received 300–400 irregular migrants per year. But just 8 years later, in 2019, Panamá received 23,968 irregular migrants at the Panamá-Colombia border. Once again, as for logistics and banking, Panamá has become a focal point — this time for migration from South America to North America. This also means that the U.S. government has become more interested and involved in Panamá’s immigration processes.
The U.S. is particularly involved in tracking migrants who travel through the Darién Jungle (known as the Darién gap). It is located along Panamá’s border with Colombia and considered by some as the most dangerous jungle in the world. Migrants from South America embark on this life-threatening journey often taking 15+days to hike from the Panama-Colombia border to Baja Chiquito, an indigenous community where SENAFRONT has set up camps. One woman counted 27 dead bodies in her trek across this portion of the Darién gap. Beyond the natural dangers in Darién, people are also robbed or left behind by their migrant groups.
The next stop is La Peñita. There SENAFRONT takes passports and uses a biometric screening system provided by the U.S. to process migrants. This biometric screening system scans migrants’ fingerprints and retinas. This data is then provided to the U.S. government. If the U.S. government runs a migrants’ biometric data against other databases and it’s flagged, they alert the Panamanian authorities. This migrant will then be denied entry to Panamá. Most migrants are held in La Peñita for 5 days. They are then bussed to the Panamá-Costa Rica border to continue their journey north (with their passports) and the U.S. tracks their movements from Panamá northward. On paper, Panamá does not deport migrants. Instead, they participate in a process referred to as controlled flow northward.
Concurrently, tens of thousands of people from Venezuela and Central America are seeking refugee status in Panamá. However, Panamá’s migration system is already strained; in July 2020 the refugee system had a backlog of 16,000 applications (3–4 years).
Since the political and economic crisis began in Venezuela, Panamá has experienced a wave of Venezuelans resettling in the country. The first people to resettle in Panamá were wealthy Venezuelans. Now though, middle and low income Venezuelans are fleeing the Maduro regime and accompanying economy. In 2018, the reported number of Venezuelans who have migrated to Panamá was 80,000, but the real number is likely higher.
Venezuelans have been the target of xenophobic insults by some Panamanians and since Chinese demand for primary resources has declined (the end of the Latin American commodity boom), not as many jobs are available now as in 2011. Although it has remained easy for wealthy Venezuelans to migrate to Panamá, it’s become increasingly difficult for those with less access to capital to do so. For example, in 2017 former Panamanian President Varela announced a policy requiring first-time Venezuelan visitors to Panamá to apply for a visa.
In each of these cases, it’s thought that as countries north of Panamá bow to U.S. pressure and attempt to stop the flow of migration, Panamá might become a popular final destination. As we are faced with this budding reality, Panamanians are considering the fact that many of us are the descendants of immigrants. I myself am the descendant of Jamaicans who migrated to Panamá for the construction of the Panama Canal. At this point, it could be tempting to say that Panamá is in the same position as the U.S. in relation to immigration. However, thinking this would be naïve. Panamá does not have the same administrative or economic capacity that the U.S. has. Several times in U.S. history Americans have complained that we don’t have enough jobs or space for immigrants. But that has never been true; the U.S. has every type of job imaginable and we have a larger capacity to accept influxes of immigration. In comparison, Panamá doesn’t have as much of a diversified workforce and promising economic opportunities are reserved for those with money and connections. This is not to say that isn’t the case in the U.S., but when utilizing the World Bank Gini index that measures inequality, Panamá scores roughly 8% worse than the U.S..
If the roles were reversed and Panamá was going through an economic or political crisis, I would want neighboring countries to accept and understand Panamanian emigrants. In fact, Panamá did go through a political crisis in the 80s which led to the U.S. military invasion in December 1989. Wealthy Panamanians did leave Panamá for a period of time. My mom has recounted to me how stressful those times were; traveling back and forth from Colón to Panama City. If it had got to the point that my family needed to leave, I would hope that other Latin American countries would have welcomed them.
Regarding what is currently happening, Panamá has a moral obligation to accept as many refugees and asylum seekers as possible. I think this is a situation in which a fair concerted government effort to increase the economic capacity in Colón and other neglected areas could create jobs for immigrants and Panamanians alike. Increased economic capacity allows Panamá to accept more immigrants and may boost foreign investment — a win-win. However, the inequality that is already woven into the fabric of everyday life in Panamá will only get worse if policies aren’t put into place that provide opportunities for middle and low income immigrants.