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

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 Rica 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.

NEWMontserrat Solano, Costa Ricas 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 dont 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 dont want to stay in Costa Rica, Solano said.

Paso Canoas

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 dont manage this right, Luis Jimnez, 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 America.

Its 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: Its 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.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/22/600-us-bound-africans-stranded-costa-rica-block-migration-route

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