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Costa Rica and Panama: Population Movement: Emergency Appeal Final Report

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Situation Report
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A. Situation Analysis

Description of the Situation

In November 2015, a group of more than 1,000 Cuban nationals were reported in the border area between Costa Rica and Panama in the community of Paso Canoas, Corredores Canton. Since these people did not meet the migration requirements to enter Costa Rica, a significant build-up of migrants occurred on the Panamanian side of the border as they began to settle in the streets, waiting on a solution to their legal immigration status.

The solution for these Cuban citizens arrived several months later when an airlift was organized so that they could bypass Costa Rica and travel directly to El Salvador; however, considering the diverse needs detected from the first few days of this intervention until its conclusion, the Costa Rican Red Cross was determined to provide humanitarian assistance to this group, which in turn inspired other government institutions, churches and organized communities to join them. Working together, these disparate organizations opened 37collecitve centres, met food, water and sanitation needs, provided health services and the national government organised and funded the airlifts, benefiting an estimated of 8,000 people.

The National Emergency Commission reported that there was a total of 5,800 Cuban migrants who received emergency accommodation, 43 temporary collective centres were established, 33 communities hosted the migrants, 15 Municipal Emergency Committees were activated, more than 500 volunteers participated and funds equal to the amount of USD $5 million were allocated for operational and administrative maintenance in the first phase of the operation (Nov 2015 – April 2016); however, the total number of Cubans registered in collective centres that received assistance from the Government of Costa Rica and the Costa Rican Red Cross totalled 6,180, according to data provided by the Costa Rican General Directorate of Migration and Immigration in mid-April 2016.

Following the departure of almost all the Cubans in March 2016, a group of Haitians and people from different countries outside of the Americas (mostly of African origin) were reported in the border zone with Panama; the African migrants came from Burkina Faso, Congo, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Senegal and Somalia, among others. Once again, a build-up of people began to occur in the streets of the border community due to Costa Rica’s visa requirements, which meant they were not allowed to enter Costa Rica and the Panamanian authorities would not allow them to legally re-enter Panama. The migrants who managed to evade the police began to gather in different zones along the Costa Rican border with Nicaragua, specifically in the Peñas Blancas sector, which had equally unsuitable conditions in terms of shelter, drinking water, food and hygiene, and so forth.

On Tuesday, 12 April 2016, these migrants were forcibly returned in transport provided by the Ministry of Public Security to the border with Panama in Paso Canoas, which began to increase this problem given the precarious conditions that the migrants were experiencing and the number of people detained at this point. To address this situation, several institutions agreed to establish a "humanitarian care post" to evaluate the migrants’ health conditions and support their basic food and hygiene requirements; the Costa Rican Red Cross later administered and operated this post.

The country's immigration authority established a temporary detention centre where approximately 1,380 irregular migrants in the country were accommodated while their immigration status was resolved. It is important to note that this occurred while the Nicaraguan police and members of the national army maintained a heavy presence along the country’s border with Costa Rica to prevent these migrants from entering the country.

From April to June 2016, a humanitarian care post was established in Paso Canoas, which was managed by the Costa Rican Red Cross, the Migration Office and public security agencies; in this post, the CRRC provided assistance in the form of first aid, food and hygiene (showers and sanitary cabins) to meet the basic needs of migrants in transit. However, this place did not provide enough humanitarian assistance to meet the demand. In addition to this post, there was a second site in the Buenos Aires sector of Puntarenas, where attention was provided to individuals or family groups travelling with children. In La Cruz de Guanacaste, two collective centres were operational during the crisis: El Jobo and Las Vueltas; both had the capacity to accommodate about 150 migrants each. However, the daily population varied widely, ranging from 80 migrants in the morning and increasing to 200 migrants in the evening, which was largely because most migrants used the people smuggling networks at night / dawn to continue their journey.

In addition, an area of land along the border known as Deldú was made available to the migrants, which was administrated by the Costa Rican government to maintain order. Due to the proximity of this area with the border, facilities were installed including potable water, sanitary cabins and a communal kitchen (an area that was used by migrants to charge their cell phones). In addition, three large sun-shades were installed. All these initiatives, which the Costa Rican government led and funded, were implemented to avoid an increase in tension between migrants and residents in the area and not to establish the site as a collective centre; nevertheless, up to 4,000 migrants were registered as living at this site.

Panama also faced a rapid build-up of Cuban migrants in May 2016, when the Costa Rican government stopped issuing transit visas to migrants, which forced 4,000 migrants to congregate in Paso Canoas, where they lived in hotels, apartments and houses; this situation continued until late June 2016, when migrants began to catch flights out of the country or identified informal routes to travel across the remaining Central American countries.

From the beginning of July 2016 to the end of the operation, the Costa Rican Red Cross administered two Migrant Assistance Posts in coordination with the CNE, the Migration Office, public security agencies and the Costa Rican Social Security Institute services (CCSS); one of the centres was at Km 20, Río Claro de Puntarenas, which is in the southern part of the country, and it served a fluctuating population of 300 people. The second centre, called La Cruz de Guanacaste was in El Cruce a Santa Cecilia, which is in northern Costa Rica; these aid posts provided temporary accommodation, food, first aid assistance, transport to medical centres, a supply of clean water and hygiene items, as well as psychosocial support (PSS).

From November 2015 to the first week in July 2016, the CRRC attended:

• Period of Cuban migration: 6,180 migrants

• Period of extra-continental migrants and others: 19,763 migrants

At the end of July 2016, Colombian media outlets observed a rise in the number of migrants concentrated in the Urabá Antioqueño and Chocó areas of Colombia, which are near Panama’s Darién province. Moreover, while only 35 Haitian migrants were registered by Colombian migration authorities in July 2015, a year later the number of Haitian migrants had increased significantly, surpassing the total of Cuban migrants registered months before. Though the Panamanian government had declared its borders as closed by May 2016, it permitted a controlled entry and exit of migrants. By August 2016, thousands of migrants were en route to North America; many of them having started their journeys in Brazil and later travelling through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.

Panamanian authorities established a migrant’s reception centre in Nicanor for those entering Panama from Las Blancas, Peñitas or Yaviza on the Colombian-Panamanian border. The entry of migrants at the Colombian-Panamanian border increased in October 2016; per health authorities, an average of 300 to 500 migrants entered Panama per day, and around 100 migrants per day left this point by bus provided by the Panamanian authorities, from where they were transported directly to the border with Costa Rica. This meant a serious accumulation of migrants, which overwhelmed the temporary reception centre in Nicanor’s capacities, especially since the migrants’ average stay in Nicanor was 4 to 6 weeks.

It is important to note that due to Hurricane Otto, the number of migrants registered in Panama and Costa Rica in the Darién and Paso Canoas areas in December 2016 decreased significantly from 120 to 50 people a day to approximately 150 people per week.