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The Pope Wants the World to Pay Attention to the Cuban Migrants Stuck in Costa Rica

Thousands of Cuban migrants heading for the United States have been stranded in Costa Rica since Nicaragua closed its border to them in mid-November and other regional governments have rejected proposals to provide them with safe passage north.
Imagen vía Victor O.P.

Kenya has been living in limbo in Costa Rica for six weeks along with thousands of other Cuban migrants. She is not happy about it.

"We are not criminals, we don't want to stay here," the 31-year-old told VICE News in a telephone interview. "We just want to get to the United States."

This weekend Pope Francis sought to bring attention to the plight of the Cubans stuck in the tiny Central American country since Nicaragua closed its border to them, blocking their route north.

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"My thoughts are with the Cuban migrants facing harsh times in Central America, many of whom are victims of human trafficking," the Pope told the crowd gathered in St Peter's Square on Sunday. "I invite the countries of the region to renew with generosity all necessary efforts in order to find a rapid solution to this humanitarian drama."

Photo by Victor O.P.

The crisis is rooted in this year's sharp increase in Cuban migrants seeking to reach the US via land. The route typically involved flying to Ecuador and then heading north through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.

The sudden surge was sparked by fears that improved relations between the US and the communist island will lead to a repeal of the so-called "Wet Foot, Dry Foot" policy that allows Cubans who reach US soil to remain.

"In 2013 we detected 2.500 cases, in 2014 they increased to almost 7,000, and in 2015 we've detected 14,000 cases in Costa Rica alone," Manuel González, the country's foreign minister, told VICE News.

Then, suddenly, on November 15 Nicaragua's government blocked the route by deploying soldiers at its border with Costa Rica to stop the Cubans.

At least 6,000 Cubans have accumulated in Costa Rica since causing, according to foreign minister González, "the worst humanitarian crisis the country has faced."

Related: 2,500 Cuban Migrants Are Still Stuck in Costa Rica – And There's No End in Sight

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The numbers arriving have slowed since Ecuador began requiring visas from Cubans from December 1, effectively cutting off the route.

Costa Rica also stopped issuing transit visas to Cubans on December 19 arguing that it just does not have the capacity to provide shelter for any more. Over Christmas the Costa Rican migration authorities announced that they would be deporting 56 Cubans back to the island after they were found in the country without visas.

Meanwhile, what to do about those still stuck in dozens of shelters in Costa Rica — many of whom have left everything they have behind them and faced considerable dangers to get that far — has turned into a thorny regional problem.

A meeting of Central American foreign ministers in mid-November in El Salvador rejected Costa Rica's proposal to create a "humanitarian corridor" that would allow Cubans safe passage to Mexico. For the last few months the Mexican authorities have been handing out visas to Cubans allowing them to make the last leg of their journey to the US border without a problem.

Related: There's a Big Increase of Cubans Heading Through Mexico to the US

The decision reflected regional sensitivity over the fact that Central American migrants face even more acute dangers when they attempt to reach the United States, and have no special arrangements letting them across the border even if they make it.

The rejection of the "humanitarian corridor" idea prompted a new Costa Rican proposal to establish an "air bridge" to fly the migrants to Belize and Mexico, but this was also rejected.

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Alexis Rojas told VICE News he left Cuba in September, and spent some days in Ecuador and then Panama. "The hardest part was leaving Colombia, where they took half my money and a friend of mine was stabbed when he refused to give them our possessions. He stayed there, I told him I had to be quick."

Alexis then spent two weeks on the Costa Rican border before he sought out a smuggler who he paid $2,000 dollars for the promise of getting him to Mexico.

"When I found out Belize was not going to let us through I knew that no one would let us through and I decided to take the 'bad' road," he said. "We walked through the rainforest for about nine hours, and I tried to get along with the man so that he would not abandon me. When we arrived to Nicaragua, he set me up with another man who got me on a bus to El Salvador."

While on the road, Alexis heard stories from other migrants, such as a Honduran woman on her fourth attempt to get to the US. She told him that on one attempt she was raped seven times by a smuggler.

After he finally got to Mexico, Alexis said local migrant activists helped him get a visa, which required him to spend four days in a detention facility. After that he flew to the city of Tijuana, on the border with California.

"I crossed the border walking over a long bridge. When I saw the United States's flag I began to cry, not because I was sad, but because I felt nostalgic," he said. "I remembered the island, the sea, my mother's house, and how much I miss her."

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Alexis is now in San Diego, searching for a job that will allow him to save money and travel to Miami.

Related: Pope Francis Says Those Who Deny Migrants Should Ask God for Forgiveness

While reports from migrants in Costa Rica suggest the numbers seeking out smugglers is increasing, most still prefer to wait for a political solution to emerge.

Kenya is among them. She was one of the Cubans who was turned back to Costa Rica on the day the Nicaraguans closed the border with an allegedly aggressive army operation.

She is currently living in one of dozens of shelters set up by the government. Her one is located in the parking lot of a fire station where the fire engines have been removed to make way for about 300 Cubans who sleep on mats covering the floor. The refuge has only one bathroom, and a small kitchen.

"We've been here for so long and they tell us stuff everyday, but we don't know what to believe in anymore," she said. "I will wait whatever time necessary so as not to go back to Cuba."

News emerged on Monday evening of a plan to set up an air bridge to El Salvador to let the first of the Cubans out. The Associated Press reported that sources in Guatemala called it a "pilot" program. Few details were immediately available.

Related: US Flag Raised Over Embassy In Cuba

Follow Melissa del Pozo on Twitter: @melissadps