Guest post by Nanneke Winters and Elena Reichl. Nanneke is a researcher at the Department of Anthropology and African Studies (ifeas), Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (Germany) and affiliated with the University of Antwerp (Belgium). Her research interests include (im)mobility, migrant trajectories and translocal livelihoods in Central America and beyond. Elena is a Master‘s student at the Department of Anthropology and African Studies (ifeas), Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (Germany). Her current work examines institutional care and control practices in a Costa Rican migrant shelter.

It has been one year since one of us wrote a guest post for Border Criminologies, in an attempt to connect Central American migrant caravans with other migrants and migrant trajectories. Much has happened since these caravans were in the headlines in late 2018. Although President Trump’s wildest fantasies, such as building an alligator moat along the Mexico-US border fast encountered legal barriers, he announced a rigid deportation policy, which would send asylum seekers back to the supposedly ‘safe third countries’ of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Around the same time, Mexico responded to US tariff threats with administrative and military measures that would drastically reduce the number of migrants arriving at the US border. These measures had the immediate effect of immobilizing migrants in Tapachula, close to Guatemala, which in turn catalysed migrant protests for the right to documents and onward travel. Further south, a shipwreck in Colombian waters close to Panama cost the lives of 19 migrants who were on their way to North America. This led to the investigation and subsequent interruption of a locally-based smuggling ring. Such ruptures in migration infrastructure and regimes offer a glimpse of the fast-changing migration landscape in the region.

What has not changed much despite these far-reaching developments, however, is the overwhelming media and scholarly attention directed towards the Mexico-US border. In order to extend our gaze towards other places through which migrant trajectories across the Americas take shape, in this post we provide an update on migration policies and practices in Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. We do so based on ethnographic fieldwork at two migrant centres in Costa Rica, which is part of our research project with Heike Drotbohm at the JGU Mainz. Following the call to take a closer look at migration regimes beyond the ‘usual suspects’, in this post we contrast Costa Rica’s southern and northern border and explore the implications of different approaches to migrants in transit and how these affect migratory experiences. While the south boasts a strictly controlled transfer agreement with Panama, in the north this agreement dissipates, leaving migrants to their own devices as they move through Nicaragua and other Central American countries. 

A heavily controlled border crossing in Paso Canoas 

Solo travelling men are supposed to line up on the right side, women in the middle line and families on the left. Please take your children by the hand, we are walking a 300 meters path to the place of reception and there will be cars passing by while we walk alongside the street.” I (Elena) was translating the instructions of a Costa Rican Red Cross employee from Spanish to English and French for migrants from African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries. It was September 2019 in Paso Canoas, Costa Rica’s main border crossing with Panama. In this small town, a bilateral transfer process takes place at set times during the week, involving security personnel from both countries and hundreds of migrants. This transfer process is part of the flujo controlado, a ‘controlled flow’ agreement between Costa Rica and Panama, and at least partly monitored by the US, to jointly deal with transit migration in an orderly manner. The way in which the migration police and the Red Cross made these migrants line up reflects some of the entanglements of care and control in Costa Rica’s management of transit migration. More precisely, it illustrates how the flujo controlado incorporates (ideas about) humanitarian assistance and migrant surveillance simultaneously. The officials in Paso Canoas considered women and children to be more vulnerable and in need of protection, so they made them walk on the far right-hand side of the road, away from passing cars. Men travelling without children were supposed to walk to their left. Yet a Red Cross official called one man with a wounded leg to the front of the line to watch over him more closely. Intended to guarantee that nobody steps “out of line” of officials’ gendered, age based and medical concerns and control, this particular formation can be read as a symbolic and practical expression of the flujo controlado on the ground.

Police officers and a Red Cross employee walk a group of migrants from the Panamanian to the Costa Rican side in Paso Canoas (photo: Elena Reichl, September 2019).

Before this flujo controlado agreement was in place, the arrival of large groups of so-called extra-continental migrants on their way to North America challenged the institutional reception capacity of Panama and Costa Rica and led to ad-hoc humanitarian assistance and sometimes to temporary border closures. Today, Costa Rican migration police receive these migrants from the Panamanian border police, who regulate their initial entry into the flujo after they arrive via the Darién jungle by gathering, revising and vaccinating them in a state-run migrant camp. Once migrants are allowed to move on, they are put on a paid bus shuttle to Paso Canoas. Via WhatsApp, state officials from the two countries organize the transfer process in detail, including determining the exact number of migrants passing through and how many of them are minors, sick, or from pre-defined ‘war and conflict countries’. In Paso Canoas, Panamanian border police and Costa Rican migration police escort migrants from the Panamanian to the Costa Rican side. There, in an open hangar with a metal roof, migrants wait for hours for their registration process. During this phase, police collect biometrical data—fingerprints and eye scans—to share with foreign agencies. Those who require additional care and/or revision will stay in a Costa Rican migrant center to recover, have an interview with a child care organization or the police, and sometimes claim asylum. Others, including those who first await remittances in the center to continue their journey, receive a 25-day transit permit to travel further. 

By means of the flujo controlado both states attempt to curb smuggling and trafficking, limit health risks for local populations, and keep migrants out of the public eye. Nonetheless, it would be an illusion to think that this agreement equals complete control of this migrant population. Such illusion disregards the agency of state officials and migrants alike. As described with regard to street level bureaucrats by Michael Lipsky, there are differences between governmental policies in theory and their practical implications. We observed this in cases where officials were prioritizing individual concerns over official conventions of controlled migration. Furthermore, not all migrants are processed within this agreement. We met persons who made use of other routes and informal infrastructures to escape the official camps and controls. In part, these strategies may be encouraged by the unpredictability of migration regimes in the region, as we will see below.

An ‘informal’ border crossing in Peñas Blancas

After explaining to me (Nanneke) the hardships he went through during his attempts to cross the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Chris said: “Now it’s easy. You pay and go. Nicaragua is in crisis so they need the money. If the [Nicaraguan] president would have done this immediately, the country would have money. He started with 50, up to 150 [US] dollars in two weeks, when he saw the people coming. … Imagine: I would have been in the States [now]...” Chris, a Ghanaian in his thirties who at the time of fieldwork (May 2019) had been living in the north-Costa Rican border town of La Cruz for three years, was an expert on Nicaragua’s change of policy. He worked at the nearby border-crossing point of Peñas Blancas, transporting people and goods with his tricycle. He witnessed the informal ‘opening up’ of the border on Nicaragua’s side and the subsequent increase of migrants passing through Peñas Blancas (now safer and cheaper than passing around it). It was baffling to hear the difference between the dangerous, potentially life-threatening crossings Chris and his fellow migrants undertook before and the relative ease with which they currently seem to move into Nicaragua.

Migrants walk into the forest near the Peñas Blancas border crossing between Costa Rica and Nicaragua (photo: Nanneke Winters, May 2019).

It was also hard to imagine that, as Chris explained, migrants just walk a few metres from the formal border crossing in Peñas Blancas, in plain sight, to take a forest path and climb a wall to submit themselves to Nicaraguan authorities. A subsequent visit to the border confirmed this strategy. News travels fast along migrant corridors, and as I stood at the border crossing, I saw small groups of migrants disappear into the forest without much hesitation. They walked in the direction of Nicaragua, where they would pay the authorities to be allowed through and put on a paid bus to Honduras. According to a high-ranking officer of Costa Rica’s Immigration and Naturalization Service stationed at Peñas Blancas, it is commonly understood that the government of Nicaragua, a country plagued by political turmoil and subsequent economic decline since 2018, desperately needs the money that hundreds of migrants in transit can quite easily provide. In addition, it is suspected that Nicaragua is not interested (anymore) in curbing this migration flow for ‘helping the US’, as the US openly criticizes the country’s government because of its violent response to protest. The Immigration officer imagined Nicaragua’s position to be pragmatic: “I better take advantage of it! They [the migrants] are going to pass anyway.” Although the temporary documents that Costa Rica gives these migrants do not authorize their exit to Nicaragua, the lack of personnel to control their movements, and especially the state’s desire to see them leave again, ensure that migration and border police regularly ignore this border-crossing practice. 

The informal passage of migrants as well as the binational flujo controlado that we have described here take place far away from the territorial US border. However, looking at these other sites highlights how migrants, through their journeys, connect various migration regimes that are volatile and contingent upon changing geopolitical landscapes. Migrants make sense of these landscapes and navigate changing rules and procedures in interaction with fellow travellers, border residents, and multiple authorities. In Henrik Vigh’s words, they are “moving within a moving environment”, dealing with multiple migration regimes simultaneously as they imagine their future elsewhere. 

Note: As we finalize this post for publication, the COVID-19 pandemic has reached Central America, impelling the different governments in the region to enforce closed borders and national lockdowns. It remains to be seen what the long-term effects of these closures are on the border crossings we’ve described above. But as we write this, we receive distressed messages from our local interlocutors, who emphasize the strain of these closures on humanitarian and security personnel as well as the increasingly complicated conditions for people still on the move.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Winters, N. and Reichl, E. (2020). Pay and go? Transit migration regimes and migrant navigation in Central America. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/04/pay-and-go [date]