In Senegal’s Dakar, Nicaragua is a Top Choice for Migrants Heading to the U.S.

Gueva Ba attempted to reach Europe by water from Morocco 11 times, but failed each time. Then, in 2023, the former welder learned of a new path to the United States that involved flying to Nicaragua and illegally crossing the border to Mexico’s north.

“In Senegal, it’s all over the streets — everyone’s talking about Nicaragua,” said Ba, who paid approximately 6 million CFA francs ($10,000) to go to Nicaragua in July, stopping in Morocco, Spain, and El Salvador. “It’s not something hidden.”

Ba, 40, was deported from the United States alongside 131 of his compatriots in September after two months in jail, while thousands of other Senegalese have established themselves in America. Many people turn to knowledgeable travel agencies who know the way, as advertised on social media by those who have successfully established in the United States.

They are part of an unprecedented rise in migration to the United States, with more people from far-flung countries crossing the border. And, as the Senegalese did, more people are making plans, paying bills, and seeking assistance using social media and apps such as WhatsApp and TikTok.

In December, arrests for illegal crossings of the United States-Mexico border hit new highs. Although arrests decreased in January, they have now surpassed 6.4 million since January 2021. And Mexicans account for only approximately one out of every four arrests, with the rest coming from more than 100 nations.

Between July and December, US police arrested 20,231 Senegalese migrants for illegally crossing the border. According to US Customs and Border Protection, this represents a tenfold increase over the 2,049 arrests made during the same period in 2022. Many cross in the isolated deserts of western Arizona, including Ba and California.

Word of the Nicaragua route circulated in Dakar early last year and gained traction in May, according to Abdoulaye Doucouré, who manages a travel firm that sold approximately 1,200 tickets from Dakar to Nicaragua in the final three months of 2023 for several thousand dollars each.

“People didn’t know about this route, but with social networks and the first migrants who took this route, the information quickly circulated among migrants,” he added.

Some are inspired by Senegal’s political upheaval — officials postponed the presidential elections in February by ten months — but the sudden appeal seems to be mostly due to social media posts and the propagation of the route.

Other West African nations have had spikes related to social media, with their population historically fleeing first to Europe. Mauritanians have arrived at the US-Mexico border in similar numbers, as have migrants from Ghana and Gambia.

Many are finally freed in the United States to seek asylum in immigrant courts, which have been backlogged for years with over 3 million cases.

Many African passports bear limited weight in the Western Hemisphere, making land travel to the United States difficult to begin. According to The Henley Passport Index, Senegalese citizens can fly visa-free to only two countries in the Americas: Nicaragua and Bolivia. Nicaragua is substantially closer to Bolivia and avoids the very deadly Darien Gap in Panama.

As US sanctions against Nicaragua’s authoritarian government have risen, President Daniel Ortega’s administration has used migration to counteract them.

The Nicaraguan government hired a Dubai-based consultancy to teach civil aviation officials on managing immigration procedures for charter flight passengers. According to Manuel Orozco, director of the Inter-American Dialogue’s migration, remittances, and development program, over 500 charter aircraft landed between June and November, the majority of which came from Haiti and Cuba.

But migrants from further afield, like as Ba, made their way to Nicaragua via a series of connecting commercial flights from Africa. In African capitals, migrants generally purchase multileg tickets from travel agents that connect through Istanbul or Madrid, with stops in Bogota, Colombia, or San Salvador, El Salvador, before arriving in Managua, Nicaragua. From there, they meet smugglers who offer to take them to the Honduran border or arrange for a journey to the United States.

The US State Department has urged Nicaragua to “play a responsible role” in managing hemispheric migration, although this has yet to occur. Nicaragua’s first lady and Vice President, Rosario Murillo, did not respond to a request for comment on the increase in extra-continental migration through her country.

El Salvador began charging $1,130 in October for citizens of 57 African and Indian countries who transited the country’s airport. Authorities said the majority of people charged were on their way to Nicaragua on Avianca, a Colombian commercial airline.

El Salvador’s fee prompted airfares from Dakar to climb by the end of 2023, according to Serigne Faye, an agent at the Touba Express travel firm in Senegal’s capital. Some passengers opt to fly through Bogota. Stopovers in Turkey are the most expensive.

While most asylum cases fail, the immigration court backlog allows applicants to stay in the United States for years and be eligible for work permits. According to Justice Department records, the asylum grant rate for Senegalese was 26% in the United States’ fiscal year ending September 30, compared to 14% for all nations.

Ousmane Anne, 34, departed Senegal on September 25 with a plane ticket to Nicaragua obtained through a travel agency. His journey lasted a month and cost more than expected. He described Mexico as perilous, with his traveling group regularly harassed, threatened, and robbed by criminals.

Despite the enthusiasm back home, he said he’d be reluctant to promote the trip to anyone who isn’t aware of the risks. However, he made it to New York, which has the highest Senegalese population of any U.S. metropolitan area, according to census data.

“I knew it would not be very easy to come here to the States, but the hope that I had was higher than all the obstacles and problems,” she added. “I knew the opportunities would be greater here.”

He just attended a seminar in Harlem organized by the Senegalese Association of America. He learnt the fundamentals of US law, heard some do’s and don’ts from police officers concerning the e-bikes and mopeds popular among migrants, and received advice on how to navigate the health-care system.

Even if he came away with more questions than answers, Anne said he is still hopeful.

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