Migrants walk through the jungle through the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama AFP

Panamanian President-elect José Raúl Mulino is offering the U.S. a deal to shut down the Darien Gap, a treacherous jungle path connecting the country with Colombia and which has become a key migratory route for those trying to reach North America.

Speaking with journalist Andrés Oppenheimer, Mulino said he is "very motivated to cooperate with the Biden administration from our country to find a solution to this problem that is taking place in the United States."

Concretely, he wants to start daily repatriation flights to send undocumented migrants apprehended in Panama to their countries of origin if the U.S. pays for them. "The United States should pay for the cost of this operation because it is a U.S. problem," Mulino told Oppenheimer, who detailed the plan in an op-ed published in the Miami Herald.

Mulino added that he has already had conversation with U.S. diplomats and is looking to explore the matter further with a Biden envoy following his inauguration, set to take place in July, saying it is likely that DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas will lead the delegation. While he recognized such a task would be difficult and too expensive to do it with all migrants, he claimed the flights would have a discouraging effect.

"After we send the fourth, fifth or sixth repatriation flight to Colombia or Venezuela, people are going to think it twice before risking their lives crossing the jungle," Mulino said.

Panamanian officials say about 1,200 undocumented migrants are beginning the Darien Gap crossing every day. A record 520,000 people made the crossing last year, about 120,000 of them children.

UNICEF recently said that the amount of children crossing has increased by 40% so far this year, putting figures on track for their fifth consecutive yearly increase, the organization added.

Based on trends observed, UNICEF estimates that the figure could reach 160,000 this year, with an overall 800,000 taking the journey. The number of children in transit is growing five times faster than adults.

Mulino had already shown willingness to shut down the path after being elected in early May. However, Colombian officials have disagreed with the pledge. Speaking to AFP, Colombian Foreign Minister Luis Gilberto Murillo said that this is a conversation we must continue, but Colombia obviously wouldn't agree with shutting down the border, and even less so with shutting down the Darien Gap."

"We need to offer more humanitarian opportunities to the population crossing that area. People are going to move and we need to guarantee that they are safe doing so."

The Biden administration has been cracking down on unlawful immigration recently, as its record on the area has become a political liability ahead of the November elections. The administration announced this month a policy to shut down asylum-seeking once the daily average of crossings reaches 2,500 over a week. Mexico has been contributing to the efforts toward reaching that figure, intercepting migrants en route with different strategies aimed at deterring them from continuing their journey.

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