Salvadoran government raises tax for Africans and Indians transiting airport

The United States is facing a record number of migrants from all across the world making their way to the southern US border to attempt to enter.   With hundreds of thousands passing through Central America, the US wants to enlist countries in the region to help stem that flow.  A new tax on certain travelers from Africa and India who pass through El Salvador's airport, may be a part of that cooperation sought by the US. 

The United Nations noted in September of this year a dramatic increase during 2023 in persons from Cuba, Haiti and Africa flying into Central America as part of trying to migrate towards the US.  Whereas before, thousands of Africans arrived in Central America on their route north after passing through the treacherous Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama, many now avoid those dangers by catching flights into Central America.  

IOM said the most significant trend has been the shift by Cuban migrants and those coming from African countries who are increasingly flying to Central America, thus sidestepping the Darién route altogether.

Meanwhile, only 4,100 migrants from Africa crossed the Darién between January and July of this year, a 65 per cent decrease from the same period in 2022.

Conversely, Honduras saw a staggering 553 per cent increase in arrivals from Africa, 19,412 people, through its southern border. Similarly, only 524 Cubans were reported in the Darién during this period, compared to the 17,157 arriving by land in Honduras.

In response to this new migration flow, the Salvadoran government hopes to dissuade those African migrants from coming through the Oscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport.  In an announcement on October 20, El Salvador's airport authority stated there would be a new $1130 tax on all transit passengers from more than 50 African nations plus India who are connecting at the airport to flights elsewhere.  The fee went into effect on flights starting October 28.

Countries subject to new transit tax

The airline Avianca, which has the greatest number of international arrivals and departures at the El Salvador airport, advised passengers on its website:

This [fee] must be paid by passengers prior the boarding of the flight.

It is important to know that, even if you pay the fee, there is a possibility that, upon arrival at El Salvador, the General Directorate of Immigration and Foreigners will deny your transit through the country in accordance with its legal powers.

Remember that the authorization of entry, transit, transfer, stay and departure in El Salvador depends 100% on the immigration authority.

The government claimed that the new tax was adopted in order to finance modernization and improvements at the airport, but the Miami Herald noted the probable actual motivation:

[E]xperts say the tariffs could be meant to keep migrants who want to reach the U.S.-Mexico border from traveling through El Salvador. The United Nations’ International Organization for Migration recently noted that more African migrants are flying directly into Central America to bypass the dangerous Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia, which over 400,000 migrants have used this year as they begin their travel north. “This could be an attempt to reduce secondary travel of travelers coming to El Salvador who then could potentially try to make it to the United States,” said Ariel Ruiz Soto, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

The African migrants are headed first towards Nicaragua, the only country in Central America where they could enter without a prior visa solely by paying an entrance fee. The independent Nicaraguan news outlet La Prensa reported that flights by Avianca have been filled to overflowing with such travelers:

The airline Avianca has restricted flights departing from Europe, South America and some Central American countries to Managua due to the overdemand by people from Africa and other countries who arrive in Nicaragua to begin their trip towards the United States. 

According to a source linked to flight ticket sales, “they are restricting some routes because Avianca's capacities are exceeded due to the migration that arrives from Africa to Nicaragua, the only country that asks only that they pay to enter without asking for a visa, so the flights are overcrowded. Until this is fixed, we cannot sell seats because there are no spaces and there is no capacity. Everything is already bought by Africans and countries with high migration looking for a way to get to the United States.”

 “This weekend Avianca had to restrict the sale of tickets because they simply already had flights full,” he said. Regarding commercial flights, mainly Avianca, “70 or 80 percent of the people on each Avianca San Salvador – Managua commercial flight are occupied by people from Africa. In El Salvador they have put the flights to Managua in consecutive departures to concentrate them all in one place and prevent them from wandering throughout the El Salvador airport,” said the source.

Reuters described the new Nicaragua migration route:

African migrants and asylum seekers heading to the United States are flying into Nicaragua to bypass the Darien Gap, a dangerous jungle isthmus connecting Panama and Colombia, according to migrants interviewed by Reuters and exclusive U.N. data.

A dozen migrants recently arrived in the Mexican northern border city of Tijuana and the southern city of Oaxaca said they had flown into the Central American country, where many African nationalities can obtain a low-cost visa.

The migrants hailed from Mali, Angola, Guinea and Senegal, and almost all said they knew about the dangers of Darien, which can only be traversed on foot.

Several said they had gone to Nicaragua after hearing macabre stories of people who had faced Darien's deadly perils.

As an example, an August piece by the AP describes how the route through Nicaragua attracted a surge from the African nation of Mauritania this year:

The spike in migration was made possible by the discovery this year of a new route through Nicaragua, where relaxed entry requirements allow Mauritanians and a handful of other foreign nationals to purchase a low-cost visa without proof of onward travel.

As word of the entry point spreads, travel agencies and paid influencers have taken to TikTok to promote the trip, selling packages of flights that leave from Mauritania, then connect through Turkey, Colombia and El Salvador, and wind up in Managua, Nicaragua. From there, the migrants, along with asylum seekers from other nations, are whisked north by bus with the help of smugglers.
The new tax in El Salvador on transit passengers went into effect the week that Brian Nichols, the US Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs came to El Salvador where he met with president Nayib Bukele. Nichols noted that one of the topics of their conversation was "mutual efforts to reduce irregular migration."

A report this week by Human Rights Watch titled "This Hell Was My Only Option" documents the dangers and abuses suffered by the tens of thousands of migrants transiting through the Darién Gap.  As the US pushes El Salvador and other countries to erect barriers to travel, those barriers push desperate migrants to take ever more dangerous routes.  With the new tax, migrants may seek other ways to get flights to visa-free Nicaragua that do not pass through El Salvador, or they may return to making their way from transit points in South American and up through Darién.