In recent years, Costa Rica has become one of the countries that immigrants from South America pass through on their long and perilous journey to the United States
But during the last quarter of 2015 and the first quarter of 2016, the number of migrants, especially Cubans, reached record highs, putting enormous economic pressure and logistics for a small country like Costa Rica and, at the same time, triggering a diplomatic crisis of regional proportions.
Until September 2015, 12,166 Cuban migrants were detained by Costa Rican authorities, representing a 24 fold increase to just 50 Cuban travelers registered in 2011, according to figures from the immigration officials in Costa Rica.
This great migration of Cubans across Central America has been brought about by different causes.
First, in January 2013, the Cuban government relaxed its immigration policy toward Cubans leaving the country. Since then, Cubans can apply for a residence permit abroad for stays longer than two years.
The legal amendment also created the category of émigré who has the right to recover their Cuban resident status, giving them the ability to do all sorts of legal and commercial transactions on the island, and travel freely between Cuba and the United States.
Before this reform, Cubans staying abroad without authorization were classified as deserters, which authorized the state to confiscate their homes and property in Cuba and deny important documents such as passport renewals and certified copies of University degrees.
Another important factor has been the reestablishment of links between the US and Cuba. Several analysts have indicated that the increase in massive outflows of Cubans from their country to the United States, is provoked by the fear that “opening Cuba” would remove the favorable immigration policy of the United States toward Cuban refugees.
Under U.S. Federal Law, titled the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 Cuban nationals may enter and obtain permanent residency in the US without a visa.
A presumption which isn’t as remote as it seems. Last year, the representative Paul Gosar (R.-Ariz.) introduced the bill “Ending Special National Origin-Based Programs for Cubans Immigration Act of 2015” which would eliminate the expedited residency process for Cubans.
Finally, another contributing factor is the open door immigration policy of Ecuador. Since 2008, this Andean nation abolished the visa requirement for visitors from most countries. This made it an attractive starting point for Cubans on their way to the United States.
By 2015, more than 40,000 Cubans had entered this Andean nation. Alleging that the flexible immigration policy was being used by human trafficking networks, Ecuador began requiring visas to Cuban visitors in December.
The high demand of migrants trying to cross the Central American corridor to the United States created a breeding ground for networks specializing in human trafficking.
Last November, it was reported that Costa Rican authorities dismantled a transnational human trafficking network, which was run by a Costa Rican woman who allegedly charged $ 7,000 to $ 15,000 to every Cuban for the trip to the United States. The organization had the capacity to carry up to 40 people a day.
However, the problem of tens of thousands of Cuban migrants crossing the Costa Rican territory was much more complex to be fully solved by law enforcement only. Also, the Constitutional Court of Costa Rica has ruled that a migrant can not be detained for more than 30 days, just because they entered the country illegally.
The problem became more evident when Nicaragua decided to close the border crossing at Peñas Blancas to Cuban migrants. The measure was applied in November 2015. Nicaragua sent a full army brigade to secure the border, going so far as to fire tear gas at the crowd of Cubans who tried to cross the borders.
The immediate effect of closing the northern border was 3,000 Cubans stranded in Costa Rican territory until November of last year. That figure grew to 5,000 by the end of 2015.
Costa Rica’s reputation as a country respectful of Human Rights was on stake because of the pressing situation of Cuban migrants stranded in its territory. The challenge was not easy for a nation with limited resources, as implied to provide, for an indefinite time, shelter, food, medical care, security and a legal solution to each of the thousands of migrants.
From the beginning, the Costa Rican government tried to assist Cuban migrants in their journey to the north. Immigration authorities issued 8,000 temporary visas so they could leave the country legally.
However, the border blockade of Nicaragua created a humanitarian crisis that the government of Costa Rica had to assume. To do so it opened 14 shelters in different parts of the country, in which were important the support provided by churches and community centers.
Last December, the government began to explore options to establish an air bridge to a third country from which migrants could continue their journey to the United States. Since the beginning of the crisis, Costa Rica had proposed to open a humanitarian corridor across Central America countries up to the US border, however, was only after months of negotiation than El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico bought the idea and agreed to participate in the operation.
Nicaragua maintained its refusal to allow the passage of Cuban migrants. This position is aligned with the interests of its ally Cuba, which has criticized the US for granting political refugee status to any Cuban who sets foot on US territory, a policy dated from 1996 known as “dry foot, wet fooot” and that in turn it is based on the Cuban Adjustment Act, in force since 1966.
After months of failed negotiations for an human corridor by land, authorities in Costa Rica proposed to allow thousands of Cubans to continue their journey via an air bridge that skipped Nicaragua.
From January to March of 2016, 5,500 Cubans were flown in 28 flights from Costa Rica to El Salvador; from there, the Cubans continued their journey by bus through Guatemala and Mexico. Some migrants with more money could buy internal air tickets from southern to northern Mexico, not only to spare long hours on the road but more importantly to avert the chance of being harmed by the criminal networks swarming in Mexico.
The Costa Rican government said the entire trip amounted to be $555 to each passenger and it added that most of Cuban migrants paid this fare. The government covered the travel costs for about 80 Cubans who lacked funds.
As of December 18, the Costa Rican government stopped delivering temporary transit visas to Cubans, who were threatened with deportation if they were caught illegally in Costa Rican territory. Leaving more than 2,000 Cubans stuck in Paso Canoas, the border crossing with Panama.
It also is estimated that nearly 4,000 Cubans chose to forgo waiting for a legal way out of Costa Rica, and ended up paying “coyotes” to transport them to the United States.
In 2015, some 41.000 Cubans entered the U.S. without visas, is the largest number of Cuban migrants within a decade.
In total, Costa Rica spent at least $3 million to resolve the Cuban migration crisis.
During the migration crisis the president of Costa Rica, Luis Guillermo Solis, blamed the problem on the immigration policy of the United States towards Cuba.
It’s up to U.S. to administer its laws and it’s up to us, the victims of these laws, to administer them too”, Solís said.