C. America migrant crisis may ‘spin out of control’


PANAMA CITY — A building crisis in Central America of U.S.-bound Cubans being blocked at borders could “spin out of control” on the frontier between Costa Rica and Panama, the Red Cross warned Thursday. “If Costa Rica doesn’t give visas to the Cubans stranded in (the border town of) Paso Canoas, we should be prepared,” Victor Hall, of the Panamanian Red Cross, told AFP in a telephone interview. He said the number of Cubans stuck in the isolated town, prevented from traveling on to Costa Rica, had swollen to 602 by Thursday. All of them aim to get to the United States, which has a decades-old policy of accepting them if they set foot on its soil. But another 5,000 to 7,000 Cuban refugees are already blocked on the next border, between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Nicaragua has been refusing them entry since mid-November, forcing Costa Rica to make increasingly desperate pleas to other Central American nations to take the Cubans in to allow them to continue their journey to the U.S. Faced with refusals by the other countries, Costa Rica last week announced it would issue no other visas to arriving Cubans and threatened to deport them back to their homeland. Hall told AFP that the Red Cross “understands that another 2,000 Cubans are crossing the country (Panama) to get to Paso Canoas.”

He said 12 Cubans have been taken to hospital with critical health problems, some of them with diabetes, kidney failure or high blood pressure. Others were treated for injuries from blows they said they received in the first stage of their journey, through Ecuador and Colombia, to Panama. The Red Cross said temporary shelters set up for the migrants in Paso Canoas were collapsing under the sheer numbers of people. He said there was a need for blankets and pillows. Among the migrants are pregnant women, and one Cuban woman told the newspaper La Estrella de Panama that she had to confide her son to a Costa Rican couple for months to avoid him going hungry. Panama’s foreign minister, Isabel Saint Malo, told national television on Wednesday that the government was working to reopen the region’s borders to the Cubans to permit them to pass. The number of Cubans trying to flee their island for a new life in the United States jumped this year. Many fear that a thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations announced a year ago will end the American policy of automatically accepting them as refugees.