During the summer of 2014, massive flows of Central American migrants – many unaccompanied children – flooded the southwestern border of the United States. While tens of thousands of migrants have been fleeing violence and poverty in search of new opportunities in the U.S., other migrants from Africa and Asia have been traveling alongside their Central American counterparts for decades.
In recent months, Costa Rican police and immigration officials told The Tico Times that they had noted an increase in the number of Asian migrants traveling though Costa Rica on their way north. In the last month alone, authorities have apprehended 54 Nepalese, one Pakistani and three Bangladeshi migrants.
Extra-continental migrants – people traveling to the United States or Canada who are not from the Western Hemisphere – have been using Central America as an entrepôt to reach North America for decades, according to the International Organization for Migration. Laura Thompson, IOM deputy director, told The Tico Times that extra-continental migration is nothing new for the isthmus. What is new, she said, was the diversity of nationalities traveling north.
According to figures from the Immigration Administration, 80 Nepalese, 37 Bangladeshi, 93 Ghanaians, and nine Somalians have entered Costa Rica legally so far in 2014.
“These extra-continental flows usually start in South America and move up slowly. The journey could take two to three years for someone from Yemen or Eritrea or Somalia to cross Africa, reach South America, [and] travel to North America. [It] is a very long journey with lots of vulnerabilities,” she said.
“Migratory flows are like water. They get blocked so they go someplace else. It’s extremely dynamic,” Thompson added.
Traveling to South America to reach Canada might seem counterintuitive, but Salvator Gutiérrez, regional liaison and policy officer for IOM, pointed out that extra-continental migrants are limited by where they can travel without a visa. Migratory paths could shift overnight as restrictions are lifted or imposed for different nationalities. IOM officials interviewed for this story listed Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Cuba as some of the most common entry points for extra-continental migrants.
Gutiérrez said that Ecuador’s decision to lift all restrictions for 90-day tourist visas for all nationalities in 2008 made the South American country a hot spot for migrants looking to travel north. The number of undocumented extra-continental migrants spiked in 2010, which in part led Ecuador to reimpose some restrictions, including on Nepalese citizens. Guatemala saw a similar spike in migrants from subcontinental Asia when the country lifted visa requirements for Indians.
Dealing with extra-continental migrants is a challenge for Central American nations, Costa Rica included. The official policy is to deport the migrants, but identifying their country of origin is often complicated by a lack of identification and the fact that many of these countries have no consulates in the region.
When the migrants are caught without immigration documents they are not always detained. On Sept. 10, eight undocumented migrants from Somalia and Eritrea were caught with a Costa Rican smuggler in Abangares, Guanacaste, on their way to Nicaragua. The migrants entered Costa Rica from Panama at the Paso Canoas border crossing without the necessary documentation and were issued a summons to appear at the Immigration Administration in San José for processing and deportation. Instead of turning themselves in, the migrants continued north.
Deportation is not cheap. Flying migrants back to Asia or Africa cost the Costa Rican government $259,490 in 2013, according to Gladys Jiménez, acting director of the Immigration Administration.
All of the officials The Tico Times consulted for this story highlighted that Asian and African migrants are especially vulnerable because of their different appearance and inability to speak Spanish. Criminal networks are often involved in smuggling these migrants across ocean and land.
In April, the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) broke up a human smuggling ring in Liberia, Guanacaste, allegedly operated by a Costa Rican gang know as Los Katanos. OIJ agents arrested 14 suspects, including five police officers. The smugglers charged each person between $130-160 for the trip across the Costa Rican-Nicaraguan border. Victims were smuggled in customized vehicles with tinted windows and reinforced suspension, enabling the transport of up to 12 people per vehicle.
Last November, Liberia’s Assistant Prosecutor Liliana Zamora told The Tico Times:
We have identified organized crime networks that are working with immigrants traveling in both directions, including Nicaraguan immigrants and those who come from Africa, Asia and South America.
At the time, Zamora said authorities faced challenges in dismantling the ring because victims are uncooperative and afraid of deportation or retaliation by smugglers. But that same month, police got a break in the case, tipped off by a confidential informant with information that allowed investigators to begin building their case, culminating in 24 raids.
The suspects were placed in preventive detention and could face up to eight years in prison if convicted. The arrested police officers could face up to 10 years in jail.
The number of these extra-continental migrants will likely continue to rise. Figures on detentions involving undocumented migration from the border patrol of the United States, where many of these migrants are destined, offer an estimation of the trends for some nationalities. The number of migrants from Nepal detained while traveling to the U.S. jumped 308 percent, from 60 in 2004 to 245 in 2012. Similarly, the numbers of undocumented migrants from Somalia rose 464 percent, 128 percent for Ghanaians, and 84 precent for Bangladeshis.
Thompson previously told The Tico Times that the total number of migrants worldwide would likely double by 2050 from 232 million to 405 million.