Colombian authorities have recently detained large groups of migrants originating from as far as Asia and Africa, highlighting shifting migration trends and underlining Colombia’s strategic importance to these human smuggling networks.
In early May, Colombian police discovered a group of 48 undocumented migrants in the coastal region of Uraba. The migrants — which included people from Cuba, Nepal, Somalia, Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan — were reportedly receiving aid from human smuggling networks based in the area, reported El Espectador.
Instead of being smuggled into Panama as promised, the migrants were robbed and abandoned before police found them. Police said that criminal group the Urabeños were behind the smuggling scheme, reported EFE.
According to Colombia’s immigration authority, migration through the country appears to be on the rise, reported El Espectador. Authorities detained 1,111 migrants in the first quarter of 2015, compared to 2,111 in all of 2014. When considering the number of undetected migrants passing through Colombia, the actual figures may be much higher.
Many of these migrants appear to be moving through the state of Antioquia, where the region of Uraba is based. According to El Colombiano, Antioquia has registered 703 undocumented migrants so far this year, and just over 60 percent of those moved through Turbo, a small town in Uraba.
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Cubans make up a significant number of those attempting to move without visas through Colombia, with 17 Cubans detained on a boat off the Uraba coast in late April. However, other recent detentions have included nationals from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
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Colombia’s geography makes it a natural launching point for migrants hoping to transit through South America to the US. This strategic location is partly why Colombia remains a key strategic hub for migration and human smuggling networks.
No matter where they arrive, migrants who intend to travel northward by land must pass through Colombia. In particular, migrants need assistance traversing the area of swamps and forests that separates Colombia and Panama, known as the Darien Gap. Smugglers have been known to abandon migrants in this region, and many don’t survive, as El Espectador has reported.
Asian and African migrants in particular tend to fly into South American countries with more flexible visa requirements, and then attempt to make part of the journey northwards by land, which may involve moving through Colombia, according to a recent report on human smuggling by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Indeed, Colombia borders a country with some of the loosest immigration controls in the world, Ecuador. According to a report released this year by Colombian migration authorities, Cubans will typically pay up to $500 for transport by land and sea from Quito, Ecuador to Colombia’s border with Panama. African migrants are known to pay up to $100 to cross the Ecuadorian border into Colombia.
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A mix of visa exceptions elsewhere in Latin America may also facilitate the entry of those looking to migrate from Asia and Africa to the US. Migrants from a number of Asian countries including Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand need no visa to enter Brazil, for example. Guatemala was once something of a pipeline for migrants from India, due to lax visa requirements (which have since been changed).
The financial incentives involved in human smuggling are significant: Colombian migration authorities have noted that African migrants have been known to pay between $6,000 to $10,000 just to transit through Colombia to Turbo. Smugglers often create additional income by forcing migrants into unpaid labor or commercial sex work, which is one reason why human smuggling and human trafficking often goes hand-in-hand, as the US State Department has detailed.
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Colombian authorities have expressed concerns that an influx of migrants through Colombia could mean criminal groups could take advantage of them to transport drugs and weapons. Deeper involvement in human smuggling could prove to be an irresistible business to organizations like the Urabeños, although there have been few previous reports of this group’s involvement in the trade. Should migrants passing through Colomba start to see levels of abuse similar to that seen in Mexico, it will be a serious humanitarian challenge for the government, both in terms of security and migration policy.