The government of El Salvador is charging a new $1,000 fee for passengers from African countries that fly into its capital’s international airport, a measure that comes as countries in the Western Hemisphere aim to stem a record flow of migration across the region.
Salvadorean port authorities said that the measure would be applied to passengers in transit earlier this month, and that the tariffs were for “airport improvements” as more passengers were entering, leaving, and connecting through San Salvador this year compared to previous ones.
“The Government of President is working hard on modernization and expansion projects at the El Salvador International Airport, in order to provide a first-class service to all users and passengers who circulate through the air terminal,” reads a statement from the airport agency.
But experts 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.
Ruiz Soto noted that people from many of the countries on the list need to get visas and purchase expensive tickets to travel to El Salvador, so the new measure will likely be an additional barrier for those who see the country as a springboard to the United States.
The list of nations El Salvador published that will see the $1,000 fees includes over 50 countries in continental Africa as well as its offshore island nations, such as the Seychelles and São Tomé and Príncipe. Nationals from India are also included.
Airlines will have to send the government a daily list of passengers from those countries as well as their flight information in and out of the country, the airport agency said. The airlines will then be charged the fee plus tax for every passenger from those countries they fly in.
Colombian multinational airline Avianca said on its website that the fees have to be paid by passengers before boarding their flights. But it warned that it was Salvadorean authorities who control who got in and out of the country.
“Even if you pay the fee, there is a possibility that, upon your arrival in El Salvador, the [government] may deny your transit through the country,” the airline said.
The International Organization for Migrationsaid last month that while the number of migrants from African countries moving through the Darién Gap had dropped by 65% between January and July, to about 4,100 people, Honduras had registered an increase of 553% in people coming through the country’s southern border, which it shares with Nicaragua, at 19,412 people.
The announcement of the Salvadorean measure also came days before Brian Nichols, the U.S. State Department assistant secretary for Western Affairs visited El Salvador. Nichols said that he had met with President Bukele and discussed “mutual efforts to address irregular migration.” The United States has been concerned about the migration flow through the country.
At a recent summit about the region’s irregular migration hosted by Mexico, El Salvador’s vice president, Felix Ulloa, said the country had been able to reduce its own irregular migration by cracking down on gangs and street violence.
“In El Salvador we took responsibility as a state and decided to attack the structural causes that generate emigration,” he said, adding that most of the exodus came from rural areas.
Nicaragua has allowed thousands of migrants from Cuba, Haiti and several African countries to fly directly into Managua’s international airport when their final destination is the U.S. border, a move migration experts and critics of leader Daniel Ortega say is a weaponization of foreign policy.
Nicaragua enacted visa-free travel for Cubans in 2021, saying that it was because many people on the island have family in Nicaragua and that it was a way to promote tourism and commerce between the two countries.
But elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, governments appear to be tightening up visas requirements and creating new travel restrictions amid record flows of migrants moving through Central America.
In recent months, more Haitians have used Nicaragua’s main airport as a springboard to the U.S.-Mexico border, allowing them to skip the dangerous Darien Gap altogether. Haitians, after Venezuelans and Ecuadorians, are the third leading nationality of people crossing the jungle, which has seen a record 408,972 crossers this year.
But on Monday, Haiti’s government suspended all flights to Nicaragua, leading to frustrated passengers who had paid thousands of dollars for a ticket out of their homeland. As of Oct. 22, Mexico requires that migrants for whom the Mexican government requires visas to enter the country have visitor visas just to transit through its international airports, regardless of how long they will be in the country.