Officials say Costa Rica is experiencing an increase in irregular migration from Africa, signaling the growth of new human smuggling networks and raising a number of questions for policymakers to consider when handling this complex issue.
Gladys Jiménez, the interim head of Costa Rica's national immigration agency (Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería), told La Nación in a recent interview that as many as 20,000 African migrants are currently en route to Costa Rica. That figure represents more than a two-fold increase from the estimate of 9,000 offered last month by Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel González before the Organization of American States.
According to Jiménez over 20 routes for African migrants have been identified, with the migrants often leaving by boat or airplane from Spain, Portugal, or countries in western Africa. After arriving in South America -- usually in Colombia or Brazil -- the migrants then make their way north to Central America, many of them hoping to eventually reach the United States. (See La Nación's map below)
Jiménez said the region is not prepared for such an influx of migrants.
"We thought at some point that if the nations of the region seek a response, this can be regulated," she said. The problem, Jiménez added, is that efforts between countries have been inconsistent.
For various reasons, accurate data on irregular migration from Africa is difficult to obtain. However, statistics from Mexico's National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración - INM), cited by the BBC in May 2016, show a large increase in the number of African migrants detained by the agency in recent years -- from 545 in 2013 to more than 2,000 in 2015.
An increase in the number of migrants from Cuba has similarly caused concern among regional authorities. In November 2015, Nicaragua closed its border with Costa Rica to prevent Cuban migrants from traveling through its territory, which in turn prompted Costa Rica to close its border with Panama. Last month, Panama announced that it would temporarily seal its border with Colombia in an attempt to halt irregular migration flows.
InSight Crime Analysis
There is little doubt that the rising number of migrants from Africa is contributing to the coffers of human smuggling networks. According to El País, African migrants pay between $5,000 and $10,000 dollars to be smuggled through Latin American routes. One migrant consulted by the Tico Times speculated that some networks are smuggling Africans directly into Central America, avoiding the circuitous path through South America.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Human Smuggling
With the potential arrival of thousands of African migrants on the horizon, Central American policymakers have been seeking solutions at the regional and international levels. However, the increase in irregular African migration through Latin America has been linked to a tightening of migration restrictions in Europe as a response to that region's own migration crisis, which stems from widespread unrest in many parts of Africa and the Middle East. Given the current anti-immigrant political climate in Europe, there is little hope for policy changes there that could ameliorate the situation in Central America. Similarly, current US immigration policy holds little promise for accommodating additional flows of irregular migrants.
Therefore, it appears that Central America may have to handle the issue of rising African migration largely on its own. Given the resource constraints and institutional vulnerabilities of many nations in the region, this could prove to be a particularly challenging task.