Costa Rica and Panama: Population Movement: Emergency appeal no. MDRCR014, update no. 3 (12-month update)

1. Summary

In November 2015, more than 1,000 Cuban nationals were reported to be camped out at the Paso Canoas border crossing with Panama. In view of requirements for entering the country and the fact that these migrants did not meet them, a significant amount of people began to congregate in this border community, taking to living in the streets while they waited for a solution to their immigration status. The Costa Rican government issued permits allowing migrants to enter the country and continue on their way to the United States.

Thousands of migrants benefitted; however, despite these permits, migrants were unable to enter Nicaraguan territory as they failed to meet Nicaragua’s immigration requirements. By March 2016, approximately 8,000 migrants were in Costa Rican territory, requiring an immediate humanitarian intervention by the CRRC, which was later joined by other government institutions, churches and organized communities, among others; all of these organizations jointly supported the establishment of 37 collective centres to address food, water and sanitation needs and promote health.
Nonetheless, the solution for many of the Cuban nationals came several months later (March to May 2016) after an air bridge between Costa Rica and El Salvador was established; in the end, around 8,000 people were airlifted to Mexico.

However, the departures of the Cuban nationals marked the beginning of the arrival of a group of Haitians and people from various countries in Asia and Africa to Panama’s border areas, specifically in Paso Canoas and Peñas Blancas; most of those from outside the continent were from Burkina Faso, Congo, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Senegal and Somalia, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Angola, Cameroon, Eritrea, Gambia, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leona, Togo, Benin, Haiti, Afghanistan, Ivory Coast and Tanzania. Since the migrants lacked visas to enter Costa Rica, they started congregating in surrounding streets as they were unable to continue because they were not authorized to enter the country and unable to turn back because Panamanian authorities would not allow them to return; those that managed to evade police started gathering near the Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica border crossing with Nicaragua, where they were living in unsuitable conditions in regard to housing, drinking water, food and hygiene.

On 12 April 2016, some migrants were transported back to the Paso Canoas border crossing with Panama by Security Ministry vehicles, which exacerbated the problem given the precarious conditions and the amount of people involved; this led to several institutions deciding to open a "humanitarian aid post" in order to assess basic food, health and hygiene conditions. This post was later handed to the Costa Rican Red Cross so that it could manage and operate it.

In May 2016, reports indicated the existence of 43 collective centres, 33 communities hosting migrants, 15 active municipal emergency committees, more than 500 volunteers and more than USD$5 million in operating and administrative maintenance executed by Costa Rica’s Emergency Commission. Panama also faced a rapid build-up of Cuban migrants in May 2016, when the Costa Rican government stopped issuing transit permits to migrants, which forced 4,000 migrants that had congregated in Paso Canoas to live in hotels, apartments and houses; this situation continued until late June 2016 when migrants were able to take flights out or find informal routes to travel across the remaining Central American countries.

At the end of July 2016, Colombian media outlets observed a rise in the migrants concentrated in Uraba Antioqueño and Choco, which are near Panama’s Darien province. Moreover, while only 35 Haitian migrants were registered by Colombian migration authorities in July 2015, the number of Haitian migrants has increased significantly, thereby surpassing the total of Cuban migrants. The Panamanian government closed its borders in May 2016; however, it is still permitting the 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.

Immigration authorities in all of the involved countries are doing everything within their power to manage the burgeoning immigration crisis, and emergency authorities are attempting to meet the humanitarian needs arising in each country's meeting points or points of passage; this was instantiated by the Panamanian authorities’ establishment of a reception centre in Nicanor for the migrants (the migrants enter Panama from Las Blancas, Peñitasor Yaviza on the Colombian-Panamanian border). From there, the migrants are transported by bus to Paso Canoas, Panama, which is near the border with Costa Rica.

The entry of migrants at the Colombian-Panamanian border increased in October 2016; according to health authorities, an average of 300 to 500 migrants was entering Panama per day on the Colombian-Panamanian border and only 100 were leaving the country per day through Panama’s border with Costa Rica, which means more migrants were entering Panama on a daily basis than leaving from it. This influx of migrants swelled the number of migrants staying in the temporary reception centre in Nicanor.

Over the last nine weeks, 7,000 migrants have passed through Panama, and there are approximately 5,000 migrants in Nicanor that are waiting to travel to the border with Costa Rica; the migrants’ average stay in Nicanor is 4 to 6 weeks. In 2016, the centre in Nicanor received 17,000 migrants “formally”; nevertheless, the number of migrants that entered Panama in 2016 could be higher as the authorities have not registered all of the migrants that have passed through Panama.

In the case of Costa Rica, approximately 12,567 migrants have been registered in the country to date. An agreement was reached with the government of Panama stipulating that as of 18 September 2016, Costa Rican authorities would only allow the entry of 100 migrants per day. When arriving at the border with Costa Rica, migrants go to a reception centre known as Kilometro 20 in Paso Canoas, which is the only migrant reception centre in southern Costa Rica. The government has arranged for buses to take migrants across the country to the border with Nicaragua, where there are currently two active migrant reception centres. Costa Rica grants migrants a temporary visa valid for 22 days; if they are delayed, this visa can be immediately renewed for 22 more days. The migrants' greatest expectation and hope upon arriving in Paso Canoas, Panama is to be granted the visa that will enable them to reach Costa Rica’s northern border with Nicaragua; while this border with remains closed, small groups of migrants are able to cross into Nicaragua