PANAMA CITY – The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a severe blow to human trafficking in Central America, and also drastically reduced the flow of migrants to Europe through the Mediterranean, according to the United Nations.
The closure of borders and strict restrictions have left thousands of migrants, mostly from Haiti and African and Asian countries, stranded in Central America, unable to continue their journey to North America.
Since the beginning of the health crisis, migrants have accumulated at the borders due to the closures, posing new challenges for the authorities, according to Carlos Perez of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The Darien region forms a dangerous natural border between Colombia and Panama, through which tens of thousands of migrants from all over the world have transited in recent years on their way north, causing periodic humanitarian crises on the isthmus.
Human rights organizations have denounced overcrowding in shelters in the Panamanian Darien while the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ordered the state to guarantee the rights of migrants, especially health, amid the pandemic.
With fewer movement options, times of desperation can lead to abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and the need to use more expensive and risky illicit trafficking services, UNODC warned in a report released on Friday.
The document did not present current data on the impact of the coronavirus on migrant smuggling in America, but noted that COVID-19 restrictions increased the vulnerability of migrants to abuse and trafficking.
UNODC’s representative in Panama, Erika Aguirre, said in the Northern Triangle, the authorities have been trying to consolidate their position to combat migrant smuggling, and that technical support and operational assistance were being provided to states.
The UN body also mentioned migrant smuggling across the Mediterranean to Europe.
The confinement and travel restrictions have not stopped the operations of traffickers at least on the Mediterranean route, according to Salome Flores of the UNODC-INEGI Center of Excellence on Friday.
By the end of April 2020, when most of Europe was under strict lockdown, 19,827 illegal migrants reached the European Union, and 256 died or disappeared, according to the report.
However, during the same month in 2019, 128,536 migrants arrived in European territory, 1,885 were dead or missing.
Most illegal immigration is conducted by people smugglers who charge high prices for the trip without guaranteeing safety.
Once they step on European soil, migrants apply for refugee status and international protection, UN officials explained.