Latin America & Caribbean

Panama begins more flights of Cuban migrants to Mexico

Cuban migrants gesture after arriving by plane from Panama to Ciudad Juarez, at the Mexican border crossing with El Paso, Texas, February 23, 2016. Nearly 150 Cubans converged on Mexico"s border city of Ciudad Juarez on Tuesday as part of a pilot programme agreed by Central American countries last year to allow the migrants to continue towards the United States. REUTERS Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Panama organised a first roung of flights in March to Ciudad Juarez for Cubans migrants stranded on their way to the US

Panama has agreed to transfer 3,800 Cubans hoping to reach the United States to a town in northern Mexico.

The Cubans have been stranded in Panama for months, hoping to reach the US under a decades-old law which gives them privileged entry and a fast-track to residency.

Officials in Panama said daily flights to Ciudad Juarez would begin on Monday.

Panama had organised some flights in March but had insisted the operation would not be repeated.

The migrants have been told they have to pay for the flights themselves.

Panamanian newspaper reports said long queues had formed at banks and money transfer shops near government migrant shelters in Chiriqui province as Cubans waited to withdraw cash sent by relatives in the United States to buy their tickets.

Last year Costa Rica and Nicaragua, which lie to the north of Panama, closed their borders to Cubans trying to head north overland.

The move created a new bottleneck in Panama for the migrants who fly to South American countries, and then walk or take buses through Central America north towards the US.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Many had been stuck for months around Panama's border with Costa Rica.

Between January and March, Costa Rica provided flights for thousands of Cubans to El Salvador and Mexico to clear a backlog of migrants who had become stuck by Nicaragua's border closure.

Panama followed suit by organising flights in March to Ciudad Juarez for 1,300 Cubans. Officials at the time insisted the operation would not be repeated.

But since then thousands more have arrived in Panama.

The exodus was prompted by President Obama's announcement in December 2014 that the US and Cuba would move towards restoring diplomatic ties.

It sparked a wave of rumours in Cuba that US immigration policy regarding Cubans would change soon - leading many migrants to risk the journey through Central America.

For decades, Cuban migrants have enjoyed special privileges.

The so-called "wet foot, dry foot" policy allows Cubans preferential treatment when they reach US soil.

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