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Jalapa, Nicaragua. 10-May-2022. Migrants mostly from Cuba, Venezuela and Haiti. LA PRENSA

After record migrant crossing through Managua airport to the U.S., Ortega’s business could decline

Between 2022 and 2023, with the strategy-business of trafficking irregular migrants, 628,700 people would have used the Augusto C. Sandino International Airport in Managua as a point of departure to continue their journey by land to the United States

As pressures to curb Daniel Ortega’s abuses mount, he continues to exacerbate the migration crisis in the southern border of the United States. The most recent data update from the Central Bank of Nicaragua (BCN) reflects that in December, the gap between passengers entering the country by plane and those leaving remained, confirming that between 2022 and 2023, approximately 628,700 passengers who entered— but did not return to their countries by plane—continued their journey by land to the United States. This highlights that the visa restriction policy announced by the Biden Administration and recently tightened have not yet halted migrant trafficking, at least up until last December.

On November 21, 2023, the United States Department of State announced for the first time a visa restriction policy aimed at individuals on charter flights to Nicaragua, designed to transport migrants traveling irregularly to that country. At that time, most charter flights originated from Cuba and other Caribbean islands, and this announcement reduced their frequency.

However, flights from Europe, carrying African, Asian, and to a lesser extent, European migrants from former Soviet Union countries increased. Nevertheless, Manuel Orozco, a researcher at the Inter-American Dialogue, believes that the number of migrants using the air bridge promoted by Ortega began to decline in the early months of 2024.

The BCN recently updated the monthly statistics of passengers who used the Managua International Airport. These statistics reflect that in December 2023, out of the 81,800 passengers who arrived by plane, only 54,900 departed through that route.

Migrant trafficking set a record

The 26,900 individuals who stayed to join the thousands of migrants who, over the past two years, have used Nicaragua’s only international airport as an air bridge to shorten their journey in search of the so-called American dream, represent a relatively smaller figure compared to the 32,100 migrants who did so in November. However, it is the fifth-largest group recorded in the 12 months of last year.

According to BCN statistics, Ortega’s business-strategy of trafficking irregular migrants reached a peak in October 2023. The surge in charter flights from Caribbean islands, Europe, and Africa, along with the increase in frequencies of regular flights bringing passengers from countries across all continents through various stopovers, resulted in a difference that month between arriving passengers by plane and those who stayed, reaching 80,700 people who presumably continued their journey by land to the southern border of the United States.

The second-highest monthly figure was recorded in September 2023 with 66,500 people, and the third in November 2022, when 46,600 did not depart by plane out of 69,000 that arrived. This figure, besides being the third-highest monthly figure of the past two years, was the highest of 2022.

Visa restriction for charter flights

On November 21, just a few weeks after the number of users of the “bridge” reached its peak, the United States announced that it would impose visa restrictions under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) INA 212(a)(3)(C) against owners, executives, and/or officials of companies operating charter flights to Nicaragua. Additionally, they stated that they were continuing to work to “try to eliminate this exploitative practice.” They urged Haitians, Cubans, and other potential migrants to seek safe and legal ways to migrate to the United States.

Following the announcement, the difference between the users of the Managua airport who departed through that terminal did not continue to grow but remained at high levels. In November, 32,100 people, and in December, 26,200, would have joined those leaving through the land borders to continue their journey northward.

The United States tightened its policy

On February 21, the U.S. announced that it would implement a new visa restriction policy under Section 212(a)(3)(C) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). In addition to affecting owners, executives, and high-ranking officials of charter flight companies already included in the November policy, this one added owners, executives, and high-ranking officials of land and sea transportation companies that provide transportation services primarily used by individuals attempting to migrate irregularly to the United States.

This new policy expanded and replaced the Nicaragua 3C charter flight policy established in November 2023. It warns that ‘no one should profit from vulnerable migrants: neither smugglers, nor private companies, nor public officials, nor governments’.

Manuel Orozco, researcher and director of the Migration, Remittances, and Development program at the Inter-American Dialogue, believes that in the early months of 2024, the average monthly number of passengers arriving in Nicaragua by plane decreased from 80,000 in the last two months of last year to 65,000.

628,700 migrants would have used the route

This reduction would be caused, among other things, by the suspension of charter flights, which, according to the researcher, have been suspended. He estimates that regular flights maintained by Venezuelan companies Conviasa and Aruba Airlines will continue to bring about 5,000 passengers per month from Cuba and other Caribbean islands. “I don’t know if the Biden Administration wants to cut those commercial flights from Aruba Airlines from Cuba to Nicaragua, nor the reason why it doesn’t,” Orozco points out.

Additionally, he explains that passengers arriving from Europe to El Salvador, and then coming to Managua via Avianca and departing to Honduras by land on Transportes del Sol, will be about 1,200 per month, as they were targeted by the visa restriction policy announced on February 21. “My suspicion is that out of the average of 55,000 entries, plus these which will be between 7,000 and 8,000, will remain until May,” the researcher says.

Buses are not offering transfers to Honduras

In Nicaragua, several land transportation companies, including del Sol, Tica Bus, and Transnica, used to cover the route between Managua and Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. However, currently on their websites and social media, they are not offering transfers to Honduras and warn that every foreigner must undergo pre-check at least seven days before the trip to enter Nicaragua, regardless of whether they will enter the country by air, sea, or land.

According to BCN statistics, between 2022 and 2023, 1.51 million passengers entered Nicaragua through the international airport terminal, while only 628,700 people departed north through that route.

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