Costa Rica to transfer 2,600 U.S.-bound migrants from Panama to Nicaragua border

SAN JOSE (Reuters) - Costa Rica’s government has begun transferring about 2,600 migrants bound for the United States from its southern border with Panama to its frontier with Nicaragua, citing concerns that large crowds may speed up the spread of coronavirus.

Costa Rica has reported 177 confirmed coronavirus cases with two deaths so far and has taken stringent measures to curb the spread of the virus.

The first group of U.S.-bound migrants, hailing from Asia, Africa and Haiti, were transported on buses toward the Nicaragua border late on Tuesday night on orders of Costa Rica’s immigration ministry, officials said.

“In 2016, (Costa Rica’s) southern border was severely affected by the massive influx of African and Haitian migrants. In the face of the coronavirus emergency, we cannot afford to repeat that situation,” said Raquel Vargas, Costa Rica’s director of immigration.

Most other Central American nations have closed their borders to prevent the spread of coronavirus, and over the past year Mexico has forbidden large groups of U.S.-bound migrants to enter the country in a bid to appease the United States.

The migrant transfers will continue through this week, Costa Rica’s immigration ministry said. It was not clear if Nicaragua, whose borders remain open, would accept the migrants.

Nicaragua’s government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Health checks were performed on migrants prior to transporting them, and at present none of them are showing coronavirus symptoms, Vargas added.

In recent years, migrants who are not from Latin America have entered Costa Rica from Panama in a controlled and coordinated manner following a migration agreement signed between the two countries four years ago.

Since the coronavirus outbreak began, Costa Rica has beefed up surveillance at its border with Nicaragua.

Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Paul Simao