African migrants and asylum seekers heading to the United States are flying into Nicaragua to bypass the Darien Gap, a dangerous jungle isthmus connecting Panama and Colombia, according to migrants interviewed by Reuters and exclusive U.N. data.
A dozen migrants recently arrived in the Mexican northern border city of Tijuana and the southern city of Oaxaca said they had flown into the Central American country, where many African nationalities can obtain a low-cost visa.
The migrants hailed from Mali, Angola, Guinea and Senegal, and almost all said they knew about the dangers of Darien, which can only be traversed on foot.
Several said they had gone to Nicaragua after hearing macabre stories of people who had faced Darien’s deadly perils.
“When I started planning my trip I told myself: I don’t want to die there,” said a 32-year-old migrant from western Mali, who explained he had fled the country due to war and violence.
“I want to live safely,” he said from a shelter in Tijuana, claiming to have paid a trafficker more than $10,000. He asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
Sitting outside a bus terminal in Oaxaca city, Souleymane, a 29-year-old Senegalese man who asked to be identified by his first name only, said that relatives in New York had paid for his passage to Nicaragua. Souleymane gestured that it had been exorbitantly expensive, though he declined to give the amount.
“The political crisis (in Senegal) scares us,” he said.
Several migrants said they found out about the alternate route through social networks and from human traffickers.
Traditionally many people trying to reach the United States have flown into Brazil or other South American countries, but knowledge of this alternate route has spread through word of mouth.
Authorities in Nicaragua did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for information on the issue.
Reuters obtained exclusive access to data from the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), scheduled to be published Wednesday in a report, which underlines the scale of the phenomenon.
In a statement to Reuters, the IOM previewed the findings of the report, including that “African and Cuban migrants are increasingly choosing air routes to reach Central American countries, avoiding the Darien jungle.”
Between January and July, some 4,100 African migrants crossed Darien, a 65% decrease compared to the same period in 2022, the statement said.
Separately, it also said 19,412 African migrants crossed Honduras – Nicaragua’s northern neighbor – in the first seven months of 2023, a 553% increase from the same period in 2022.
Only 524 Cubans were reported in Darien during that period, in contrast to the 17,157 recorded in Honduras.
The data suggest that thousands of African and Cuban migrants have opted for the Nicaragua route in recent months.