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As More Migrants from Africa and Asia Arrive in Latin America, Governments Seek Orderly and Controlled Pathways

As More Migrants from Africa and Asia Arrive in Latin America, Governments Seek Orderly and Controlled Pathways


On the Panamian side of the Darien Gap, boats are used to ferry extracontinental migrants across a river. (Photo: Caitlyn Yates)

During the last decade, the demographic profile of migrants moving through Latin America—many with hopes of reaching the United States—has considerably diversified, with growing numbers originating from Africa and Asia. Migrants of non-Western Hemispheric nationalities are often referred to as extracontinental. As rising border enforcement has made entry to other traditional destination regions—particularly Europe—more difficult, extracontinental migrants increasingly are turning their sights to varied destinations and routes, their travel often facilitated by smugglers or other migrants. Despite the growing number of arrivals in Latin America, extracontinental migrants have received significantly less attention amid vastly larger outward movements from Venezuela and Central America. Even so, the number of extracontinental migrants moving in and through Latin America has increased so dramatically in recent years that it prompted targeted policy responses from some countries, including Panama, Colombia, and Costa Rica.

Box 1. Definitions

The term “extracontinental migrant,” as used in this article, refers to individuals of non-Western Hemispheric origin transiting through Latin America. These migrants originate in Africa and Asia, often with the goal of reaching the United States or Canada.

In the U.S. government context, these migrants are sometimes referred to as Special Interest Aliens, though the term includes only migrants from countries that promote, produce, or protect terrorist organizations or their members. This excludes many countries on the African and Asian continents.

Most extracontinental migrants enter the Western Hemisphere through legal means—either with a visa or because a visa is not needed. They arrive in South American countries with lax visa requirements, particularly Ecuador, Brazil, and even Guyana. Entry, though, is just the first step in what is frequently a journey of several months, and sometimes even several years. Extracontinental migrants most frequently have the United States or Canada in mind as their final destination, though given that this is an arduous, expensive, and often dangerous journey, some abandon their quest and instead remain in South America, whether by choice or circumstance.

This article draws on the author’s extensive fieldwork throughout Latin America to understand the experiences of extracontinental migrants in the region. It analyzes the reaction of Latin American governments to this migration and provides perspectives on what can be expected of this population—and the region’s policy responses—going forward. Ultimately, while several Latin American states are responding to extracontinental movements, Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica have developed the most comprehensive procedures. However, these policy and programmatic responses are neither sufficient to meet the needs of migrants, nor sustainable as this population increases in Latin America.

Box 2. About This Research

This article draws on fieldwork conducted by the author in Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Mexico between June 2018 and August 2019. Most of the fieldwork was conducted in the Darien Gap (the jungle region along Colombia and Panama’s shared border) during three separate site visits.

The author interviewed extracontinental migrants, law enforcement agents, immigration officials, migrant-smuggling facilitators, and immigrant advocates in all four countries. Most of the information in this article draws on these fieldwork experiences. Data are provided when available.

A Hard-to-Count, But Growing, Phenomenon

Around 2006, Colombia began for the first time to register the consistent arrival of extracontinental migrants moving en route to the United States. It was not until 2014 though that the numbers and geographic diversity of this new migration pattern began to increase significantly. This is consistent with increases in arrivals in Europe that year as well.

It is difficult, however, to ascertain the scope of these flows to and through Latin America, as most Latin American countries do not publicly release apprehension or deportation figures by country of origin. Still, since most extracontinental migrants continue their journeys north, Mexican and U.S. apprehension, asylum claim, and deportation data can be used as proxies. Even so, this methodology poses some challenges, as it does not account for individuals who remain in Latin America or who opt to return to their country of origin.

Figure 1. Mexican Apprehensions of Migrants from Africa and Asia, FY 2013-18

Notes: Mexico’s removal data are reported by calendar year but have been arranged to align with the U.S. fiscal year for comparison purposes. The U.S. federal fiscal year runs from October 1 through September 30.
Source: Mexican Interior Ministry, “Boletín mensual de estadísticas migratorias,” accessed September 6, 2019, available online.

Mexico registered approximately 10,200 apprehensions of extracontinental migrants in fiscal year (FY) 2018—or one out of every 10 people apprehended. The United States reported approximately 12,550 extracontinental migrants crossing the southern border between ports of entry during the same timeframe, a far lower share of overall apprehensions, at 3 percent.

Figure 2. U.S. Apprehensions of Migrants from Africa and Asia, FY 2013-18

Notes: The U.S. federal fiscal year runs from October 1 through September 30. In the U.S. context, apprehensions represent just one measure of migration.
Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), “U.S. Border Patrol Nationwide Apprehensions by Citizenship and Sector,” accessed September 6, 2019 available online.

However, both numbers undercount the true scope of this migration. In Mexico, some migrants (mainly those from South Asia) move through the country without being apprehended. In the United States, apprehensions carried out by the U.S. Border Patrol represent just one faction of arrivals, as they exclude those who request asylum at official ports of entry. Those who request asylum at ports of entry are counted as inadmissibles, and while the government provides totals, it does not publicly release data for all nationalities. This makes it impossible to know the true numbers arriving to the United States from Africa and Asia.

Even with these data challenges, during the last five years individuals from more than 80 African and Asian countries have been apprehended after they transited through Mexico and on to the United States. According to U.S. apprehension figures, on the Asian continent, migrants primarily originate in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Chinese migrants also frequently cross the U.S. southern border, though the routes and dynamics of Chinese migration are significantly different than all other Asian countries and are therefore not addressed here. India is by far the most prevalent sending country for extracontinental migrants, with 8,997 apprehensions in the United States in FY 2018 alone—representing approximately 72 percent of all extracontinental migrant apprehensions that year.

The top origin countries for Africans apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol are Eritrea, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). However, African apprehension figures from Mexico are likely more representative in this case, as the United States registered just 222 apprehensions of Africans for FY 2018. Mexico, on the other hand, recorded more than ten times that number, at 2,699, for the same year. One reason for this disparity is that Africans are more likely to request asylum and therefore be counted in inadmissible data in the United States, compared to Asians who are more likely to cross between ports of entry. In 2018—and this appears to be consistent for 2019—Cameroon was by far the most prevalent African sending country in Mexican apprehension data, with the DRC and Eritrea as a distant second and third.


Extracontinental migrants leave their countries for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, migrants depart for economic reasons or after natural disasters. This appears to particularly be the case for South Asians. Frequently, extracontinental migrants—particularly those from sub-Saharan Africa and Middle Eastern countries—are fleeing from persecution during conflicts. For instance, the numbers of Cameroonians moving through Latin America has increased dramatically in the last year as the Anglophone minority in Cameroon attempts to secede from the Francophone majority in an increasingly volatile situation. In other cases, migrants are seeking to reunite with family members in the United States or Canada. However, despite some noticeable patterns, it is difficult to isolate just one cause for migration. In many cases, as with other migration patterns, one’s decision to leave is the result of a combination of factors.

Much like the diverse motivations for embarking on a transcontinental journey, extracontinental migrants report a wide array of experiences during their travels. These differences depend primarily on the demographic profile and financial situation of those individuals moving through Latin America. Migrants from South Asia, for instance, are almost always single, working-age men. Moreover, many—though certainly not all—South Asian migrants have more economic resources, facilitating their ability to pay tens of thousands of dollars in smuggling fees over the course of their transit through the region. There is a less distinct pattern for migrants originating on the African continent. Those fleeing persecution from Cameroon or the DRC frequently bring their families, including small children. Africans also pay smuggling fees, though the costs are usually lower than for South Asian migrants. The journey from Asia or Africa usually lasts months, or even years, as migrants wait for family members to send money or because they may work odd jobs to finance the next leg of the trip. Regardless, extracontinental migrants will almost certainly have paid several thousand dollars in smuggling and bribery fees before successfully arriving at the U.S. southern border.

Differences in Migration from and beyond Latin America

Increasingly, migrants, particularly from Africa and the Middle East, are finding traditional migration routes to Europe too risky or expensive, as Europe hardens its own borders and strikes deals with countries such as Turkey and Libya to forestall transit migration. An August 2019 interview by the author in Peñita, Panama with a man from Cameroon offered one example. He conceded that “Europe was there,” referring to the continent’s vicinity to Cameroon, “but it is just too expensive.” Beyond cost, Latin America poses significantly fewer enforcement hurdles than Europe, with laxer visa laws that allow migrants to easily enter the continent through airports rather than skirting around official ports of entry—including by dangerous passage across the Mediterranean Sea.

In 2008, for example, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa lifted visa requirements for all nationalities—though he reinstated requirements for 11 nations soon thereafter. Throughout the next ten years, all other nationalities were permitted to enter Ecuador without a visa. While Brazil has more stringent visa requirements than Ecuador, several migrants interviewed reported being allowed to board flights to Brazil without having the proper documents. Moreover, Venezuela and Guyana also sometimes serve as entry points into Latin America, as respondents noted in interviews. However, these patterns seem to be shifting with slightly more attention from Latin American countries on extracontinental migration. In August 2019, Ecuador added 11 new countries to its visa requirement list, including some of the most prevalent extracontinental countries such as Cameroon, India, and Sri Lanka. Before he announced his resignation earlier this month, Acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan also reportedly pursued increased immigration enforcement cooperation with Brazil.

Despite some increasing pressure on entrance countries to tighten their visa requirements, once extracontinental migrants enter Latin America, very few governments have developed targeted enforcement or deterrence policies. In addition, they infrequently deport extracontinental migrants. There are also indications that this may be changing though as, for the first time in October 2019, Mexico’s removal deported of more than 300 Indians in a single instance October received significant attention). Given both a lack of repatriation agreements with African and Asian countries, together with the cost of a transcontinental deportation process, these individuals do not face similar risks for deportation as migrants from Western Hemispheric countries. For instance, of the approximately 34,000 extracontinental migrants apprehended in Mexico between 2013 and 2018, just 3.3 percent were deported. By comparison, 96 percent of those apprehended from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were deported by the Mexican government over the same period.

The lack of enforcement attention is also likely because many Latin American countries are overwhelmed with larger, more regional flows, such as the more than 4.5 million people who have fled Venezuela since 2014 and the hundreds of thousands leaving Central America each year. In the last five years, an estimated 330,000 Venezuelans have moved to Ecuador—a figure that is exponentially larger than the number of extracontinental migrants moving through its territory. Moreover, more than 811,000 apprehensions occurred along the U.S. southern border during the first 11 months of FY 2019, the majority of whom were Central American. As a result, extracontinental migrants effectively slide under the radar in many Latin American countries, which has resulted in an increasing flow from more distant regions during the last five years.

The Route through Latin America

Extracontinental migrants frequently enter Latin America via Ecuador and Brazil, and most continue north toward the United States or Canada. Many conduct their journeys by paying smuggling facilitators or by staying in contact with other migrants they meet along the way. Their transportation methods most frequently include a combination of buses, private cars, walking on foot, and boats. After Ecuador or Brazil, migrants enter Colombia, where they often circumvent official checkpoints and proceed by bus to the north of the country. In northern Colombia, they begin what is frequently described as the most difficult part of the journey, through the Darien Gap.

Figure 3. Migration Routes through Latin America

Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) compilation based on author’s fieldwork rendering.

Through the Darien Gap

The Darien Gap is one of the world’s most remote jungle regions, accessible only on foot or by canoe. It is also the territorial divide between South and Central America. Migrants disembark from buses in the Colombian towns of Turbo or Necoclí. From there, they must cross the Gulf of Úraba, where local fishermen can be hired as smuggling facilitators. The boats leave at night and are often significantly over capacity. In January 2019, a small fishing boat carrying 28 migrants capsized in the gulf, and 15 migrants from several African nations died. Most boats do make it, though, and the travelers arrive in the municipalities of Acandí or Capurganá on the Darien Gap’s eastern coast. From there, they wait to cross the jungle.

Traversing the Darien takes six to eight days on foot in the best of times, and closer to ten days during the rainy season. It is physically taxing to walk through the dense jungle, where it rains most days and is consistently 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Those making the journey must navigate flash floods, bandits, armed guerilla groups, poisonous plants, venomous snakes, and other dangerous wildlife. During this trek, migrants risk getting lost, hurt, or killed. While many travel in small groups, some find themselves left behind or otherwise separated from their groups. This can be a death sentence, even for those with access to a digital or physical map. Smugglers or guides often assist migrants through the trek, but the quality of smuggling services in the Darien varies. Migrants almost always run out of food a couple of days into their walk and often rely on rivers for water supply. The challenges to crossing the Darien are numerous, and while there are no reliable figures on the number of people who die in the jungle, more than a dozen migrants interviewed by the author recalled seeing bodies along the journey.

Beyond the Darien Gap

Upon successfully crossing the jungle, migrants enter Panama, where nearly all are immediately apprehended. Given the limited routes through the jungle, and the fact that Panama only has one highway moving from south to north, Panamanian border patrol officials can easily monitor migration flows. As a result, Panama has the most developed immigration enforcement policy for extracontinental migrants in Latin America. However, as with Mexico, extracontinental migrants are infrequently deported from Panama.

After Panama, the journey through the rest of Central America is usually quick, with migrants frequently passing through each country in just one to two days, typically in buses or private vehicles. Yet each country poses certain challenges. In Nicaragua, for instance, migrants must pay the military US $150 to pass. In Honduras and Guatemala, extracontinental migrants frequently recall that they or their acquaintances were kidnapped for ransom. In an October 2019 interview, an Indian man stated that in Guatemala “[the] guys kept me in a locked room, not giving enough food, sometimes nothing… I had already paid $6,500 but they kept asking for [another] $5,000.” In this case, he managed to escape from his kidnappers, though he said at least a dozen more migrants remained in the stash house when he escaped. In all transit countries, extracontinental migrants face difficulties including racial discrimination and language barriers, and struggle to find foods amenable to their religious practices or local customs.

Finally, in Mexico, these migrants typically enter the southern border town of Tapachula, where they historically have been provided with an exit document known as a salvoconducto. This document required migrants to exit Mexico within 20 days, by any border desired, including the U.S. one. It allowed extracontinental migrants to use buses or even planes and arrive at the U.S. border quickly. However, in June 2019, amid pressure from the U.S. government, Mexico stopped issuing salvoconductos, forcing migrants to remain in southern Mexico without a way to move forward or go back. In October 2019, as the number of extracontinental migrants stuck in Tapachula had increased to several thousand, Africans unsuccessfully attempted to transit by caravan, though Mexican authorities quickly thwarted those plans. This policy change has reportedly affected migrants from the Asian continent less than those from Africa, either because they evade migration authorities with the aid of smugglers or because South Asians have the finances to bribe officials and continue their journeys.

Controlled Flow as a Hybrid Response

While the Darien Gap represents the most challenging part of the journey, Panama is the transit country with most targeted immigration responses for this migrant population. This may be at least in part because Panama is not wholly overwhelmed by other migration flows and can therefore provide more attention and resources to extracontinental migrants. By late 2014 and early 2015, Panama—in collaboration with Colombia and Costa Rica—enacted a policy known as controlled flow, or flujo controlado. This policy manages the flow of extracontinental migrants through the country, with only a certain number of migrants allowed to move through its territory each day. This on paper operates similarly to the U.S. border policy of “metering,” which the Trump administration imposed along the entire U.S. southern border in 2018. Metering sharply limits the number of asylum seekers processed each day, with long backups in some Mexican border communities as would-be asylum seekers queue for weeks and months, awaiting their turn to apply.

In Panama’s case, the National Border Service (Servicio Nacional de Fronteras, or SENAFRONT), allows 100 migrants—including extracontinental migrants, Cubans, and Haitians—to move through the country each day. As there is only one main route through the Darien at this time, most migrants arrive in Bajo Chiquito, a small community on the outskirts of the jungle that has a permanent SENAFRONT presence. The number of migrants who move through the Darien at any given time is at least partially dependent on Colombian migration and law enforcement officials who work in collaboration with Panamanian authorities. From there—and depending on the number of migrants arriving that day—they are taken by canoe to the main migrant processing center in La Peñita. This processing center maintains the wait list and houses migrants who will experience the controlled-flow policy.

Figure 4. Route through the Darien Gap

Source: MPI compilation based on Michel Puech’s rendering.

Upon entering La Peñita, migrants immediately queue for SENAFRONT officers to verify passports, administer vaccinations, and conduct a security screen. First, all migrants must have valid passports to be permitted access to the camp and to continue to Costa Rica. Second, they are required to receive four immunization shots (for yellow fever, tuberculosis, influenza, and measles). After the first two steps, individuals are placed on a waiting list and receive bracelets indicating their place in the controlled-flow line. Each country of origin has its own “line” and the number of migrants per country of origin who leave each day is conducted through relatively discretionary means. Third, migrants must go through a security review process that includes further verification of travel documents, running names through U.S. and international security databases, and taking fingerprints and retina scans. This security review is conducted by Panamanian officials and the information gathered is then shared with U.S. officials through a system known as BITMAP. Through this process, migrants who may pose a security threat are monitored, and in extreme cases may even be deported, before arriving at the U.S. border.

Migrants stay in the camp until their number is called, a period that could take days or even months. The camp itself has one large metal building that was initially used to house arrivals but has seen its capacity overwhelmed. Instead, migrants now stay in tents, abandoned houses, or other available shelters. During the author’s visits to the camp in January and August 2019, wait times ranged from three to 62 days, with the average wait around 15 days. Rather than maintaining a list that clearly delineates wait time estimates, SENAFRONT officers gather migrants by country of origin every morning and read off names or bracelet numbers for individuals leaving that afternoon. For those whose names are called, they gather their belongings and wait for buses.

In the afternoon, two charter buses (each with a 50-person capacity) take migrants out of the southern camp. Migrants must pay US $40 per person in transportation fees and prove they have both their passport and vaccination verification documents. Once on the bus, they are moved to another camp, in the northern Panamanian province of Chiriqui. There, they experience a comparable waiting process, as Costa Rica also accepts only 100 migrants per day. Once individuals’ names are called in this camp, they are permitted to enter Costa Rica, where they pass through another biometric screening process before continuing on to Nicaragua.

To carry out this policy, Panamanian officials work closely with Colombian and Costa Rican officials—as well as U.S. immigration authorities for security reviews. Given this regional cooperation, officials from the United States, Panama, Colombia, and Costa Rica held meetings in August 2019 to discuss migrants moving through the Darien. In many ways, controlled flow serves as both a metering policy and a facilitation policy in Panama, limiting migrants’ reliance on smugglers as SENAFRONT buses them through the country. This hybrid policy, which is both reactive and proactive, moves migrants through Panama in the most orderly and rapid manner possible, ensuring that extracontinental migrants do not opt to stay in Panama. After Panama, migrants still have a minimum of five countries to transit before arriving at the U.S. southern border.

Likely Realities Going Forward

As Europe, the United States, and other highly industrialized nations increase their enforcement systems and tighten their immigration policies—in the U.S. case, sharply narrowing access to its asylum system—would-be migrants from many parts of the world increasingly look beyond traditional destinations. In doing so, they embark on long, arduous, and expensive journeys in hopes of finding brighter economic futures, protection from repressive or violent conditions in their homelands, or reunification with relatives.

While their numbers to date have been small, they grow each year, and in the short and medium term extracontinental migrants arriving in Latin America will likely draw increased attention from policymakers and immigration officials throughout the hemisphere, given both national- security and humanitarian reasons. In fact, some U.S. resources, such as funding for the biometrics system used in Panama, are already apportioned to the monitoring of extracontinental migrants as they make their way northward. For the United States, this migration trend represents just a fraction of arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border, though this population may take on greater urgency going forward. Because few extracontinental migrants are rarely deported as they journey through South and Central America, those who successfully arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border will pose a new and pressing quandary.

It is not just the United States whose attention will shift toward extracontinental migration. Transit countries such as Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica will likely continue to adjust their own policies to adapt to ever more diverse migration movements. These adjustments will include fine-tuning the controlled-flow policy and increasing the number of nationalities that require a visa for entry, whether at the behest of individual Latin American countries or under pressure from the U.S. government. Latin American governments are also likely to face questions about integration into their societies as more extracontinental migrants are expected to remain in the region amid a hardening U.S.-Mexico border.

This in turn may prompt these countries to consider specific policies to deter extracontinental migration or to regularize the status of newcomers. Ecuador and Mexico are the Latin American countries most likely to become destinations for extracontinental migrants, and interviews by the author suggest that some already are settling there. Finally, U.S. asylum cooperation agreements with El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—though not in force at the time of writing—would likely also dramatically affect flows of extracontinental migrants in Latin America. However, it is still not immediately clear how these agreements would be implemented or how they would specifically affect the flows of extracontinental migrants moving the region.

A changing policy landscape and the onerous journey aside, it seems clear that the movement of extracontinental migrants in Latin America is one that will continue in the years to come.


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