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Blinken calls for global cooperation on migration in Panama trip

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Panama for talks focused on migration./AFP
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Apr 20, 2022 - 07:11 AM

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday sought greater  cooperation in Latin America on migration, taking up a cause of rising political headaches amid the global focus on Ukraine.

The top US diplomat was paying a two-day trip to Panama, his first to Latin America this year, weeks before President Joe Biden’s administration ends pandemic restrictions that allowed swift expulsions to Mexico.

Blinken and US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas will discuss migration measures Wednesday in Panama City with counterparts from more than 20 countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Nearly 100 million people have fled their homes worldwide amid startlingly fast displacement in Ukraine since Russia invaded in February.

“There are now more people on the move around the world — displaced from their homes — than at any time since World War II. And we’re feeling that here in our hemisphere,” Blinken said before heading to the ministerial talks, which follow a similar meeting in Colombia in October.

“Panama has really stepped up in a big way to be a leader in making sure that we see this as a shared responsibility, which is really the focus” of the trip, he told US embassy employees.

Blinken, who earlier met Panama’s President Laurentino Cortizo and toured the internationally crucial Panama Canal, hailed the US-allied trading hub as a “strong beacon of democracy” amid global worries about a rise in autocracies.

The presidential office in a statement after the talks said that Panama was “the first country to promote a multilateral, internationally supported approach” to the new challenges of migration.

Competition for attention 

US authorities apprehended more than 221,000 people on the Mexican border in March, the highest for a single month in more than two decades.

The spike comes as people from El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti and Honduras flee dire poverty, rampant violence and natural disasters aggravated by climate change.

But the United States is far from the only nation in the hemisphere experiencing migration strains. Venezuela’s economic and political crisis has triggered an exodus of more than six million people, with neighboring Colombia taking the most.

Brian Nichols, the top US diplomat for Latin America, said the Panama talks would seek to boost support to nations that welcome refugees, including through multinational institutions.

The Panama trip will help lay the groundwork for a summit of Latin American leaders that Biden will lead in Los Angeles in June.

With Latin America rarely seen as a global security hotspot, the international community spends more than 10 times on each refugee from Syria compared with each Venezuelan migrant, according to a Brookings Institution study.

“There’s going to be less and less appetite from the international community to support migrants in the Western Hemisphere while we have a major migration crisis being provoked by Russia,” said Jason Marczak, an expert on Latin America at the Atlantic Council.

“We need to avoid that becoming an afterthought for the global community, so it’s really important to have Secretary Blinken along with Secretary Mayorkas there in Panama.”

Ukrainian refugees have received a warmer welcome in much of the West than did mostly Muslim migrants from Syria and Afghanistan.

Biden has promised to welcome 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, drawing few protests from former president Donald Trump’s Republican Party, which has generally made opposition to immigration a core issue.

Biden has promised to look at the root causes of migration and take a more humane approach than Trump.

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