WHILE the Panama Canal is seen as the path between the seas, The Isthmus has also becoming a key corridor for immigrants from as far away as Somalia, India and Pakistan trying to reach the USA, a perceived, Shangri-La with or without Donald Trump
Many of them are aided by human traffickers who lure people who have saved for years to get to countries like Ecuador, with a liberal visa requirement to begin the northward trek to find the holy grail.
The bottle neck comes when they reach Panama, and the country become a holding ground for hundreds who are preyed upon by smugglers in Costa Del Este and Panama City where some obtain temporary work in warehouses and restaurants.
The long distance travelers have lately been boosted by an inflow from countries relatively close like Cuba and Colombia, and increasingly those seeking to escape the problems in Venezuela.
President Juan Carlos Varela, an espouser of dialogue to solve problems, or push them to the sidelines, has had face to face meetings with his opposite numbers in Colombia and Costa Rica, and a regional task force has had some success in rounding up smugglers. But like cockroaches they return as soon as bug spraying stops and they find lots to feed on. Since 2015, some 25,000 Cubans have passed through Panama.
While Panama struggles with recurring waves, Costa Rica is tightening its border. Both countries are now concerned about a potential Venezuelan influx..
The latest move to transfer 71 unwanted Cubans to the -Costa Rica border on Thursday is seen by our northern neighbors as highlighting a pass-the-buck strategy between Central American countries struggling to stem the flow of U.S.-bound migrants.
The Cubans were driven by bus from a holding center in the east – where they had been kept since crossing into Panama from Colombia They had been woken at dawn to board waiting buses.
President Varela told reporters the Cubans had to leave the country or face deportation to Cuba or Colombia.
Costa Rican Communication Minister Mauricio Herrera said that the Cubans would not be permitted entry and any found illegally crossing into the country would be returned to Panama.
Roeland de Wilde head of the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM)in Costa Rica, said half the Cubans had already entered the country..
“We have reliable information that indicates the Cubans have entered Costa Rica with human smugglers,” he said and warned them “not to put themselves at risk through the dangerous smuggling business,” For many, too little advice too late.
Some 25,000 Cubans passed through the region in 2015. Since then, obstacles have increased.
Nicaragua closed its border to undocumented Cuban migrants in late 2015, forcing Costa Rica, and Panama –to follow suit. In January, the United States scrapped a decades-old policy giving Cubans preferred immigrant status. Hundreds have since been deported.
The same goes for those from faraway places who put their trust in smugglers.
One hopeful from the Punjab who survived in Panama for a year, while he saved to pay for his northward trek, finally reached the US with three friends.
There he spent seven months in detention, before being deported to his home country where he still keeps his dream alive.