SAN JOSÉ — A troubling new sea-bound migration route has opened up, as some 20,000 migrants from African countries are believed to have flocked to Costa Rica, according to a recently released International Organization for Migration (IOM) report.
La Nación, a daily in the Costa Rican capital of San José, reports that the figure of 20,000 greatly exceeds the estimate of 9,000 made last month by the Organization of American States (OAS), and is set to expand further as people fleeing economic hardship and state repression in Africa seek an alternative to the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to Europe.
The transatlantic trafficking routes tend to bring African migrants primarily to Brazil, before transiting through South and Central America to reach their final destination: the United States.
The migrants board ships from West African countries like Senegal, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast, or further north from Spain and Portugal, to reach the shores of Colombia and Brazil.
Trafficking routes then take them through Peru and the Andean coast to Panama and ultimately Costa Rica, where they follow the same paths trodden before by refugees from Cuba and violent Central American countries who also traveled north to the U.S.-Mexican border.
"Countries in the region aren't ready for such an influx," Gladys Jiménez, interim director of Costa Rica's Migration Department told La Nación. "Legislation exists to handle regular transit, but not something like this." Regional efforts at tackling an earlier Cuban migration crisis took a hit last November when Nicaragua shut its borders to migrants entering from Costa Rica, but the numbers of African asylum seekers far exceed the Cuban arrivals.
Unlike in its response to the influx of Cubans, when it opened shelters and requested towns and churches to take in some 8,000 refugees, the Costa Rican government now says it will only provide medical attention to African migrants in the country, who arrive by the dozens every day from the Panamanian border. With the small country of 4.8 million people struggling to handle the coming arrivals and with Nicaraguan soldiers shutting the land border to the north, African migrants will be forced to find other ways to make it northward, where the ultimate goal is typically refugee status in the United States.