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Regional Conference on Migration 2023: a plan and some uncertainties

16 December, 2023 | Ricardo Changala

Representatives of 11 member countries of the Regional Conference on Migration (RCM) met on December 6 and 7 in Panama, reaffirming their commitment to addressing migration issues with a human-centered approach. They aimed to consider the needs and specificities of each population group, continue promoting actions for safe, orderly, and regular migration, and bolster efforts against human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants.

The XXVIII Regional Conference on Migration (RCM), held under Panama’s pro tempore presidency and themed “Migration: the Regional Challenge of the 21st Century,” convened vice ministers from Belize, Canada, Costa Rica, El Salvador, the United States, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and the Dominican Republic.

Border management, migration, human mobility, and climate change, labor mobility, diasporas and labor migration, human trafficking, migrant smuggling, forced labor, communication and migration, and migrant women, children, and adolescents were the topics addressed during this session.

Decisions were made by the CRM on this issue, and an undisclosed Regional Action Plan on Labor Migration was approved.

Regional Challenges

The region faces multiple challenges within an extremely complex context. One of the most pressing issues is the situation in the so-called “Darien Gap,” an extensive territory of virgin forest that interrupts the migratory route to the USA between Colombia and Panama, clearly under the control of organized crime.

In 2023 alone, nearly half a million people have crossed this perilous point where, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 342 people have lost their lives since 2016. However, the agency acknowledges that the actual figure is much higher, considering unreported deaths.

According to the National Border Service of Panama, among the 458,228 people who crossed the area in 2023, the majority are Venezuelans (294,598), followed by substantial numbers of Ecuadorians (51,129) and Haitians (41,489). Additionally, there are thousands of individuals from various other nationalities, such as Chinese, Indians, Afghans, and individuals from African countries. Most start their journey north after arriving in South America via Brazil or Ecuador.

The situation is critical, lacking resources to assist this population through safe routes, preventing the serious crimes faced by men, women, and children attempting to move north.

According to Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “No single country can address such challenges in isolation. Only through collaborative efforts at every stage of the journey can we effectively combat these challenges.” [1][1]

The Regional Action Plan

Although the specifics of the adopted Regional Action Plan are not yet known, three aspects from the CRM meeting results have raised uncertainties and garnered attention.

Firstly, the omission of any reference to the “Human Mobility Observatory,” announced during the joint session between the Regional Conference on Migration (CRM) and the South American Conference on Migration (CSM) in August of the same year 2023, stands out. This tool was considered highly useful for the pursued objectives.

Secondly, while the CRM acknowledges “the importance of continuing to strengthen actions ensuring the protection of all migrants, particularly those in vulnerable situations,” no consensus has been reached regarding the admission of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies as Observer Agencies of the RCM.

Thirdly, the CRM resolved to “urge the region’s countries with open border policies to review them to mitigate the risks associated with irregular migration.”

Excessive Controls

Beyond other considerations, it seems evident that one factor contributing to so-called “irregular migration” is precisely the excess of controls or requirements for human mobility, rather than their absence.

This aspect warrants in-depth analysis to comprehend the CRM’s perspective and its actual impact on the situation under review.

It’s crucial to recall that the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights asserts:

  1. Everyone has the right to move freely and choose their residence within a state’s territory.
  2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including their own, and return to their country.

Hence, the principle is freedom, not limitation, which doesn’t negate the need for controls and searches but should aim to facilitate border crossings, not unnecessarily hinder them.


The CRM, also known as the Puebla Process, was established in February 1996 during the Tuxtla II Presidential Summit as a voluntary, non-binding Regional Consultative area. It allows decision-making by consensus and provides a platform for discussing regional and international migration, seeking enhanced coordination, transparency, and cooperation.

The financing of the CRM is covered by its members, with varied contributions. The USA contributes 50%, Canada 25%, Mexico 12.5%, and the remaining states parties contribute the rest. Additionally, several international organizations, such as the International Organization for Migration, participate as observers, providing technical and, where appropriate, financial assistance. Social organizations also engage through the Regional Network of Civil Organizations for Migration (RROCM).

[1] Diario Publico, 11 de diciembre de 2023