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Getting it together: Extra-regional migration in South, Central and North America and the need for more coordinated responses


1. Executive summary

This study aims to provide a comprehensive and detailed analysis of mixed migration movements from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean across South, Central and North America — often referred to in the region as “extra-regional migration flows”. Through a combination of key informant interviews and desk research, this report offers information on: the profiles of extra-regional people on the move; the extent of their access to adequate information before and during their journey; the migration routes and means they use; the smuggling economies and dynamics connected to these movements; the impacts of COVID-19 on migration trends and on the experience of people on the move along this route; the risks and needs that extra-regional refugees and migrants face; the humanitarian response they can rely on; the national and regional migration policies and legal frameworks that apply to these migration flows; and the changes they are likely to undergo in the near future.

In recent years, the journey of extra-regional refugees and migrants across the Americas has started to attract more attention. While there is some literature on their profiles and routes, it does not allow for a comprehensive understanding of these mixed migration movements. The analysis included in this report aims to complement existing knowledge and understanding of extra-regional migration and to contribute to better responses by authorities and humanitarian actors.

Key findings

• The economic impact of COVID-19 led to an increase in the desire to migrate, as there are now fewer economic opportunities in many countries of origin. Smugglers have taken advantage of the rise in demand by raising prices.

• Similarly, thousands of Haitian, Cuban, and African refugees and migrants are leaving first destination countries in South America — primarily Brazil, Chile and Uruguay — due to deteriorating economic conditions and are engaging in onward north-bound journeys.

• While extra-regional people on the move consider it easy to obtain information about smuggling services, this is not the case for practical information that would allow them to move across countries in a safer way and with less reliance on smugglers. Language is also a significant barrier to receiving information linked to access to services, humanitarian assistance, asylum procedures as well as legal counselling, making those on the move even more dependent on smugglers.

• The Darien Gap, a wild forest area between Colombia and Panama, remains the most challenging part of the journey: it is a particularly hostile environment to cross, rife with dangers such as robberies, rapes, killings, dangerous wildlife, and a difficult terrain of mountains, valleys, swamps, and rivers.

• In the first months of 2021, with frequent and extended pandemic-triggered suspensions of boat travel to reach the main departure point into the Gap, thousands of extra-regional refugees and migrants remained stranded for weeks and months in Colombia’s western Caribbean region, waiting to continue their journey.

• After managing to depart from Colombia, large groups of several hundred extra-regional refugees and migrants have been arriving at the migrant reception stations on the Panamanian side of the Darien region in short periods of time. Responses by the authorities have fallen short of needs.

• Extra-regional people on the move also face significant protection risks beyond the Darien region and in general along their journey through the Americas. Such risks include extortion and kidnapping, often linked to corruption networks that involve smugglers, police officials and immigration officers.

• Changing policies and border closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in longer journeys and severer economic hardship due to increased smuggling prices.

• Many different actors are involved in the facilitation of irregular journeys across South, Central and North America, including transnational criminal networks, local criminal groups, and members of local communities in transit locations looking for a source of livelihood.

• Coordinated efforts among countries in the region to adequately manage these mixed migration flows are still at a very incipient phase, with only one joint program currently operating between Panama and Costa Rica. Recent regional policy conversations seemed to focus on combating smuggling rather than responding to the needs of extra-regional people on the move.

• The limited assistance available to extra-regional refugees and migrants is largely provided by humanitarian organisations and other civil society actors, but needs greatly outweigh resources and capacity.

• Extra-regional people on the move, especially Haitians, report discrimination and racism by authorities and the host society in Mexico. Mexico is, at the same time, the transit country in which they stay for longer but also more and more often their final destination.