Venezuelan migrants walk across the Rio Bravo towards the United States border to surrender to the border patrol, from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Oct. 13, 2022.

Nicaragua is helping tens of thousands of migrants reach the US

Nicaragua is the only country in Central America that does not require visas from citizens of several troubled nations in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. The country has long been a springboard for migrants seeking to get to the United States by land.

The World

All over social media, people from countries across the globe — including Cuba, Haiti, Senegal, Mauritania and former Soviet republics — are sharing tips on how to reach the US by flying to Nicaragua first.

Nicaragua is the only country in Central America that does not require visas from citizens of several troubled nations in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, and it’s long been a springboard for migrants seeking to get to the United States by land.

“Nicaragua has a pivotal role on how to engage in regional routes through Central America,” said Ariel Ruiz Soto, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute. 

Other countries in South America, including Colombia and Brazil, have minimal visa requirements for certain nationalities from the Caribbean or Africa. But Ruiz Soto said this route is particularly attractive because migrants can skip the Darien Gap, the dangerous jungle that separates South and Central America.

“Traveling by plane makes it not just easier, but less risky, even if it's at a big cost,” he said. 

Why Nicaragua has such permissive policies is subject to debate.

Haitians waiting to board a flight to Nicaragua complain after the government banned all charter flights to the country, at Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Oct. 30, 2023.

Haitians waiting to board a flight to Nicaragua complain after the government banned all charter flights to the country, at Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Oct. 30, 2023.

Credit:

Odelyn Joseph/AP/File photo

The country is run by President Daniel Ortega, a left-wing authoritarian leader who does not have good relations with the United States. The Biden administration has denounced the deterioration of democracy and his government as a de facto dictatorship that has committed multiple human rights violations. It also imposed economic sanctions on more than 500 Nicaraguan government officials.

Some experts think Nicaragua is using migration as a tool to provoke and punish the United States.

“What the Nicaraguan government is doing is a form of indirect aggression against the US,” said Manuel Orozco, director of the migration and remittances program at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington DC think tank.

Mexico and most Central American countries have imposed visa requirements on certain nationalities to help the US limit migration. But the government of Nicaragua has done exactly the opposite.

Back in 2021, after massive protests in Cuba, Nicaragua decided to lift visa requirements for Cuban citizens. Since then, more than 400,000 Cubans have landed in Nicaragua, according to data from the Nicaraguan Aviation that was shared with The World. Most of them are now assumed to be headed to the US.

Cubans fly to Nicaragua on charter flights that are reportedly expensive. More than a dozen Cuban migrants interviewed by The World in Miami and Texas said their tickets from Havana to Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, cost between $2,000 and $5,000 per seat.

Record numbers of migrants

In the 2023 fiscal year, more than 2 million migrants were apprehended at the US-Mexico border, a record number for two consecutive years. The Biden administration is working with several countries in the Western Hemisphere to limit migration, including via Nicaragua.

In October, it negotiated with the Haitian government to ban charter flights, which transported over 30,000 Haitians to Nicaragua in just three months.

Haitian migrants wade across the Tuquesa river, Panama, Oct. 4, 2023. Dozens of charter flights believed to be carrying migrants fleeing Haiti have touched down in Nicaragua, the latest in a historic rush of migration to the US.

Haitian migrants wade across the Tuquesa river, Panama, Oct. 4, 2023. Dozens of charter flights believed to be carrying migrants fleeing Haiti have touched down in Nicaragua, the latest in a historic rush of migration to the US.

Credit:

Arnulfo Franco/AP/File photo

The US also imposed sanctions on the owners and executives of companies running these flights. But shutting down their operations is not always easy.

“...everyone has the right [to] free movement.”

Manuel Orozco, director of migration and remittances, Inter-American Dialogue

“It's a complicated issue because everyone has the right [to] free movement," Orozco explained. 

Another challenge has been that the planes filled with migrants are coming from places that are increasingly farther away. There have been recent reports of flights coming from Europe to Nicaragua full of migrants from Africa. They typically make multiple stopovers before landing in Managua.

The week before Christmas, a plane with 300 passengers from India — which was also headed to Nicaragua — made a quick stop in France to refuel. It came into the media spotlight after being detained by French authorities on human trafficking allegations.

But it turned out that the passengers were not being trafficked, and just wanted to migrate.

Indian passengers who travelled in an unmarked Legend Airlines A340 from Vatry Airport in France, arrive at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport in Mumbai, India, Dec. 26, 2023.

Indian passengers who travelled in an unmarked Legend Airlines A340 from Vatry Airport in France, arrive at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport in Mumbai, India, Dec. 26, 2023. The passengers were heading to Nicaragua but were instead blocked at the airport in France for four days.

Credit:

Rafiq Maqbool/AP/File photo

Muzaffar Chishty, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, said this incident signals a more sophisticated form of smuggling.

“These smuggling rings are now providing the kind of service you will get from a travel agency, and they operate with this kind of business mentality,” he said. “They are selling plane tickets, accommodations, and they're selling access, in small bits and pieces, to the US southern border.”

Targeting on social media

On social media, there are people advertising all-inclusive packages targeting migrants in different languages. They include flights to Nicaragua, transportation to Mexico, meals, lodging and some even advice on how to apply for asylum using the US government’s designated app CBP One.

“Social media now is more powerful than any governmental agencies in determining people's movements,” Chishty said. “People are on it all the time, they know which routes to take, which cities to go to, and this was not a phenomenon that existed even two or three years ago.”

For now, it doesn’t seem like Nicaragua’s president is willing to control migration passing through his country. But even if he does, Ruiz Soto, the policy analyst, said migrants will always find new routes to reach the US, no matter how dangerous or expensive they are.

Related: 'It's really hard here': Migrants heading north from Latin America face barriers at the US-Mexico border

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.