The Hamilton Spectator

Colombia’s Migration Crisis

- Genevieve Glatsky, Federico Rios, Ruth Maclean, Mady Camara and Safak Timur contribute­d reporting.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — As record numbers of people cross into the United States, America’s southern border is not the only place where the migration crisis is playing out.

About 4,800 kilometers to the south, at Colombia’s main internatio­nal airport, hundreds of African migrants have been pouring in every day, paying trafficker­s approximat­ely $10,000 for flight packages they hope will help them reach the United States.

The surge of Africans in Bogotá, which began last year, is a vivid example of how one of the largest global movements of people in decades is shifting migration patterns.

With some African countries confrontin­g economic crisis and political upheaval, and Europe cracking down on immigratio­n, many more Africans are making a far longer journey to the United States.

The migrants in Bogotá come mainly from West African countries such as

Guinea, Mauritania, Senegal and Sierra Leone, though some are from as far east as Somalia.

They are bound for Nicaragua, the only country in Central America where citizens from many African nations — and from Haiti, Cuba and Venezuela — can enter without a visa. Experts say the country’s president, Daniel Ortega, loosened visa requiremen­ts in recent years to compel the United States to lift sanctions on his authoritar­ian government.

To reach Nicaragua, migrants fly to hubs like Istanbul, then on to Colombia, where many fly to El Salvador and then to Nicaragua. Once there, they head by land toward Mexico and the U.S. border.

The trip, which has been called by airline employees “the luxury route,” bypasses the Darién Gap, the dangerous jungle pass linking South and North America.

Last year, 60,000 Africans entered Mexico on their way to the United States, up from fewer than 7,000 the year before, Mexican authoritie­s reported.

A daily flight from Istanbul to Bogotá’s El Dorado Internatio­nal Airport, on Turkish Airlines, has become the most popular route for African migrants trying to reach Nicaragua, airline officials say. But other routes — from Spain and Morocco, with stops in Colombia or

Brazil — have also boomed.

Officials say travel agents in Africa buy tickets in bulk that they resell at a profit. They advertise online, including in WhatsApp groups like one in Guinea with thousands of members called “Let’s Leave the Country.”

Colombia’s migration director, Carlos Fernando García, said large numbers of Africans began appearing in Bogotá’s airport last spring after the government suspended transit visa requiremen­ts for citizens of several African countries to stimulate tourism.

In 2023, over 56,000 people from Africa transited through Colombia, according to migration data. Authoritie­s would not provide data from previous years, but immigrant groups say last year’s figure is a huge increase and fueled primarily by migrants.

Some migrants at Bogotá’s airport have had to wait for connecting flights scheduled days after they arrived. Others have been stranded after discoverin­g that El Salvador, the next country on their itinerary, charges people from Africa a $1,130 transit fee.

The airport has no beds or showers for migrants. The only food and water is sold at pricey cafes.

There have been flu outbreaks. In December, two African children were found in a bathroom after being abandoned by travelers who were not their parents.

Mr. García said airlines were responsibl­e for passengers in the airport between flights, not the government. Turkish Airlines did not respond to a request for comment. Avianca, a Colombian airline that operates several routes used by African migrants headed to Nicaragua, said it was obliged to transport passengers who met travel requiremen­ts.

In Bogotá’s airport, migrants are largely kept out of view of other passengers.

Mouhamed Diallo, 40, a journalist who taught university courses in Conakry, Guinea’s capital, said he had spent two days in the arrivals area, before being allowed into the departures section the day of

his next flight — to San Salvador, El Salvador.

“I found someone who left yesterday,” he said. “He had been there 12 days.”

Some migrants have found themselves trapped in the airport. Kanja Jabbie, a former police officer from Sierra Leone, said he paid $10,000 to travel to Nicaragua. But he learned of the transit fee El Salvador requires only after he arrived in Colombia.

He had no cash, he said, and there is no place to receive wired funds in the terminal, or even a bank machine.

“I am stuck,” said Mr. Jabbie, 46, who spent three days at the terminal, surviving on tea.

The fee, which El Salvador imposed last fall, calling it an “airport improvemen­t fee,” has been a main cause for the backlog of passengers in Bogotá, according to airline officials. El Salvador’s government did not respond to a request for comment.

The area around Gate A9, where daily flights leave to San Salvador, is filled with migrants. People sleep in a corner, or kneel in Muslim prayer, using airplane blankets. Laundry hangs on luggage.

Since December, when the two migrant children were left behind in the airport, Colombian authoritie­s have taken a tougher stance.

Airlines are required to verify that children are traveling with adults who are their parents, and Colombian authoritie­s are pressing them to permit aboard only people who have a connecting flight within 24 hours.

Migration officers have also started rounding up migrants

whose tickets have expired, who linger in the airport for more than a day or who come from a handful of African countries from which Colombia still requires a transit visa. They are putting them on flights back to Istanbul.

Mr. Jabbie was among them.

Last month, three women from Cameroon resisted and were dragged screaming through the airport by migration officers and the police and were struck repeatedly with a Taser, they said.

“When we collapse, they put us on the plane,” said Agnes Foncha Malung, 29.

The women were held in Bogotá’s airport for several days over what migration authoritie­s told them were visa issues before they were deported.

Ms. Malung said she had paid $11,500 for the trip.

Migration authoritie­s did not respond to requests for comment on the incident.

Still, many African migrants have made it to the United States. Mr. Diallo, the journalist, arrived in New York’s La Guardia Airport — his ninth airport in 17 days — on a cold January day.

He had traveled through Central America and Mexico in smugglers’ vehicles, he said, and sat shivering all night in Arizona before he was picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol and requested asylum.

After being released with a date in immigratio­n court, he traveled to New York to join his brother. Asked if he would send his wife and children on the same route, Mr. Diallo said, “No, never.”

“Never in my life,” he added. “I have traumatism.”

 ?? PHOTOGRAPH­S BY FEDERICO RIOS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? El Dorado Internatio­nal Airport in Bogotá has become a hub for African migrants hoping to make it to the United States.
PHOTOGRAPH­S BY FEDERICO RIOS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES El Dorado Internatio­nal Airport in Bogotá has become a hub for African migrants hoping to make it to the United States.
 ?? ?? Some travelers from Africa spend days in Bogotá’s airport before they can continue to their next destinatio­n, and ultimately the U.S.
Some travelers from Africa spend days in Bogotá’s airport before they can continue to their next destinatio­n, and ultimately the U.S.
 ?? PHOTOGRAPH­S BY FEDERICO RIOS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? Bogotá’s airport has no beds or showers for migrants, many of whom spend days there.
PHOTOGRAPH­S BY FEDERICO RIOS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES Bogotá’s airport has no beds or showers for migrants, many of whom spend days there.
 ?? ?? African migrants at El Dorado airport in Bogotá waiting for a flight to El Salvador, part of their journey to the U.S.
African migrants at El Dorado airport in Bogotá waiting for a flight to El Salvador, part of their journey to the U.S.

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