600 US-bound Africans stranded in Costa Rica after officials block route

di Patrick Kingsley and Lindsay Fendt, The Guardian,
April 23, 2016.

Blocked migration route has led to
a buildup of people in town of Paso Canoas, where migrants are now
sleeping rough in a makeshift detention camp

About 600 US-bound Africans are
stranded in Costa
after officials blocked a major migration route to America,
leading local aid workers to warn of a humanitarian crisis if their
number continues to rise.

African and Latin American migrants
have long passed through Costa Rica on their way to the US, but their
passage has been blocked by the authorities in Costa Rica and
Nicaragua, the next country on the route north.

This has led to a buildup of people in
the border town of Paso Canoas, where they are now sleeping rough in
a makeshift detention camp.

Montserrat Solano, Costa Rica’s
human rights ombudsman told The Guardian that officials were unsure
where the migrants were from. 

“They claim they are Africans and
some of them definitely are, but it is unclear which country they
come from. They don’t have papers and many are not very forthcoming
about where they came from.”

Some of the migrants have said they
are from “Congo”, but have not told officials if they mean the
Democratic Republic
of Congo
or the smaller Republic
of Congo

Legally Costa Rica can only detain the
migrants for 30 days at which point the government will either need
to deport them or release them. 

According to Solano, deportation
would be illegal unless the government can determine where the
migrants are from and ensure that they will not experience grave
human rights abuses if they return.

They say they want to go to the
United States and that makes them harder to grant refugee status
because they clearly don’t want to stay in Costa Rica,”

The Costa Rican government says it has
not decided what to do with them, and in the meantime they are being
tended to by local Red Cross workers. 

Speaking to Al Jazeera, the
medics said they feared an escalation of the crisis, should these 600
people turn out to be the first of a new wave of African migrants.

They could be changing their route
from Europe and going to America and so we could have a humanitarian
crisis if we don’t manage this right,”
Luis Jiménez, a Red Cross
representative in Paso Canoas, told the TV channel.

But migration experts said that the
route was not new, and has long been trod by Africans hoping to reach

It’s nothing to do with the
Balkan route becoming harder to take,”
Joel Millman, a spokesman
for the International Organisation for Migration,
said in an interview with the Guardian.
This phenomenon has been building
for years,”
Millman added. 

“The number of Africans making this
trip and asking for asylum every year at the US border is in the
thousands, so this 600 is just a traffic jam. You see these kind of
agglomerations every now and again.”

Africans typically take planes to
Ecuador or Brazil, or occasionally stow away inside cargo ships,
before making their way up through several countries in Latin America
to the US border, where they claim asylum, Millman said.

Members of the stranded group told Al
Jazeera they had been travelling for four months and had reached
South America by boat. Youleyni, a pregnant woman from the Democratic
Republic of Congo, said: “It’s been bad, a lot of police in
Colombia, Panama asking for money.”

Costa Rica has typically taken a
laissez-faire attitude to migrants crossing its territory, but may
have now decided to shift policy because Nicaragua recently began to
send people back to Costa Rican soil.

In December, regional
authorities organised an airlift of about 6,000 Cubans
who had
been held up in Costa Rica and Panama after Nicaragua closed its
southern border to migrants on 15 November.

There are now an additional 3,000
Cubans stranded on the Panamanian side of the border, with more
expected to arrive.

The Panamanian newspaper La Prensa,
reported that at least 700 of the Cubans have started a hunger strike
to pressure Costa Rica to open its borders.

The pressure at the border spurred
Costa Rican human rights authorities to issue a letter last week
calling on other governments in Central America to work to establish
a consistent policy on migrants in order to stop these border rushes.
This is going to continue,”
Solano said.  

“This is not a problem that is going to go away with
these specific migrants.”