A new response for migrants in Central America: taking them by bus to the north | ET REALITY

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Miranda Villasmil guided her daughter and son among hundreds of crowded migrants, many of them still muddy and swollen from their journey to Costa Rica from South America. The family of three carried only two shopping bags with their belongings from their past lives in Venezuela.

When they reached the line for buses that would take them to the Nicaraguan border, Villasmil was so overcome with relief that she texted family members back home who were also considering fleeing. The government of Costa Rica, she wrote to them, was willing to provide “safe passage.”

“We are moving forward,” Villasmil told his family in Venezuela.

Villasmil is one of thousands of migrants taking advantage of new bus transportation programs adopted by Costa Rica and other Central American countries to try to deal with a historic tide of migration crossing their borders.

More than 400,000 people have crossed into Costa Rica from Panama this year, according to Panamanian officials, doubling the number of crossings from last year and prompting a huge tent encampment along Costa Rica’s borders, complaints from car owners. businesses and an increase in abusive smuggling operations. .

In October, the Costa Rican government declared a national emergency and formed a plan with Panama to move migrants from its southern border to its north. Costa Rican officials say the bus program eliminated encampment, in addition to easing tension in border communities and giving people a safer alternative to paying human traffickers.

Similar bus transportation programs have also emerged in parts of Honduras and Mexico.

But the strategy has raised alarm bells in the United States, which has asked its Latin American allies to discourage people from making the dangerous journey north, encouraging them to apply for refugee status closer to their home countries.

Instead, the shuttles appear to be forming a fast track so they can race north.

“The United States wants to contain people,” said Dr. Marta Blanco, executive director of Fundación Cadena, a nonprofit humanitarian organization currently helping migrants at a bus terminal in Costa Rica. “This is to keep sending people, to just keep the flow going.”

Biden administration officials, who were not authorized to speak on the record, say they have raised concerns behind closed doors with the governments of Costa Rica and Panama, while publicly praising both countries for collaborating on other security and immigration agreements. . Biden even hosted President Rodrigo Chaves of Costa Rica at the White House in August before sending $12 million to the country to bolster his immigration policies.

But U.S. officials have also argued that bus routes only encourage more migrants to flee their homes and make the dangerous journey to the U.S. border. Their Central American counterparts argue that immigrants are already determined to travel to the United States and that the bus system is making the trip less dangerous.

“This migratory flow cannot be stopped, it cannot be prohibited, but it can be managed,” said José Pablo Vindas, coordinator of Costa Rica’s immigration police, in an interview from the migrant bus terminal, which was once a pencil factory

Approximately 30 buses, each with 55 migrants on board, enter and leave the facility each day. The numbers can skyrocket; In one week, more than 14,000 people were bussed from Panama to Costa Rica’s northern border, according to Costa Rican officials.

“This is not about allowing, encouraging or discouraging these trips,” Vindas said. “It’s about providing safe conditions for the people who do it, because otherwise they would be exposed to trafficking or dangerous conditions.”

But some families said they had encountered the same conditions at the bus terminal.

The bus transportation program is not free and has added another fee to the many that immigrants face on their costly journey north.

It can also be dangerous. At the beginning of this year, at least 39 people died when a bus transporting immigrants through Panama fell off a cliff. Last month, 18 migrants died in a bus accident in Mexico and an accident in Honduras left four dead and a dozen injured.

In Panama, each person must pay $60 to be transported by bus to the main terminal in Costa Rica. Then they must pay another $30 to board a ferry that will take them to the border with Nicaragua. Fares are charged by bus companies, which are licensed by governments.

On a recent October day inside the terminal, dozens of frantic families lined up outside a money transfer office to receive funds from relatives for a bus ticket.

Travelers can only leave the facility by bus, Vindas said. They cannot simply leave the premises.

Bunk beds and military cots were installed in a nearby building for about 380 people, but they had been full for days. Vindas said the facility normally held more than 1,000 people and on one recent day had held up to 1,800, with hundreds sleeping on the floor.

José Díaz and his family had been traveling for 20 days when they arrived at the bus terminal. They were relieved to simply board one of the government-provided ferries in Panama that would transport them north.

But he soon discovered that he needed more bus tickets and had spent his last $120 in Panama, just to get here.

The Díaz family had two options, a terminal employee said: A relative could transfer them money, or they could wait in the dark underpass of the bus terminal, along with dozens of other families, and sleep on concrete with minimal light. With the terminal full of people, Díaz prepared her daughters to go under the building.

“We feel like prisoners, prisoners, prisoners, prisoners, because we can’t go outside,” he said. “They think you have a lot of money. Rather, one comes to secure one’s future.”

Below, in the darkness, families huddled on blankets on the cement floor or leaned on loose plastic barricades. There was a frame for a bunk bed but no mattress. Little children in diapers ran around dazed adults. Parents desperately tried to find staff to help their sick children.

Some migrants said they were not provided with regular meals and that when they asked for water, they were told to drink rainwater that dripped from the floor above. Many said the only way to get enough money was to leave the premises and work, something authorities had banned.

In an interview, Marta Vindas, Costa Rica’s immigration director, rejected comparisons of the bus terminal to a detention center, noting that migrants had access to bathrooms, meals and numerous humanitarian organizations on site.

“This is a transit zone; that is the reason they are there, so they can flow to the other border,” Vindas said.

Other Central American countries have also adopted bus transportation practices. Honduran immigration and transportation officials created direct bus routes to Guatemala as a safe alternative for migrants. In Mexico, transit programs are more sporadic. The government set up centers in Oaxaca where buses transport migrants north to relieve pressure on the country’s southern border, but it has also flown migrants south, away from the U.S. border.

In the United States, Texas and Florida have bused migrants to New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and several other cities to alleviate the concentration of people arriving in border cities. But Republicans have also taken advantage of the practice to punish Democratic states.

Before Costa Rica’s bus transportation program, migrants crossed that country’s southern border without major challenges, before settling temporarily in a tent camp at a fairground in the city of Paso Canoas while they looked for short-term jobs. term.

“At least this bus system takes the problem somewhere else instead of keeping it here,” said Rubén Acón, president of Canatur, Costa Rica’s national tourism chamber. He said the country was facing “the same situation” as New York City, where Mayor Eric Adams has said his resources have been depleted by the surge of immigrants coming to the city.

From the street in front of the bus terminal, Kimberly Salas, 43, from Venezuela, and her son, Pedro Zerpa, wondered if they should go inside. While traveling from Panama they had heard about the new bus program that could speed up their trip north. But as they considered it, they saw a person at the building’s window waving at them to stay away.

“It’s okay,” Zerpa said. “We can talk.”

The next day they were seen walking under a scorching sun on a highway heading north into the United States.

Emiliano Rodríguez Mega contributed reports from Mexico City, and Joan Suazo from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

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