African trajectories across Central America: displacements, transitory emplacements, and ambivalent migration nodes

This research project aims to gain insight into the emerging trajectories of migrants who traverse severely challenged Central American countries in an attempt to reach North America. On an empirical level, the project responds to the recent increase of African and other migrants and refugees in Central America and situates their experiences in a context of globe-spanning migration routes, ‘crises’ and industries. On a theoretical level, the project builds on and further elaborates critical understandings of the dynamics between migration, displacement and (im)mobilities. In particular, the project asks to what extent novel conceptualizations of the displacement/emplacement dialectic can be applied to the increasingly drawn-out and volatile migrant trajectories across the so-called Global South. To do so, its ethnographic focus lies on migrant journeys as well as on what will be referred to as “migration nodes” of smuggling, surveillance and solidarity throughout key Central American sites. Offering an ethnographic understanding of migrant trajectories through these interconnected journeys and nodes, this project counters simplistic representations of migrants and refugees en route and contributes to the theorization of ambivalent, entangled, and localized displacement dynamics.

So far, the research included fieldwork at migrant reception shelters and border zones in Panama, Honduras and Costa Rica. In these three countries, we explored the volatilities of recent migration policies and practices, and the ways in which migrants negotiate these both inside and outside shelters, taking into account reception dynamics among local border / indigenous populations.

Nanneke Winters conducted fieldwork in the Darién region in Panama (bordering Colombia), in northern Costa Rica (at the border with Nicaragua), and in western and southern Honduras (bordering El Salvador and Guatemala, and Nicaragua, respectively). Working with a diversity of actors involved with formal and informal reception in its broadest sense, including migrants from African, Cuban and Haitian descent, she mainly focused on the social navigation of transit infrastructures that shape migrant trajectories. She found evidence of a simultaneous reproduction and challenging of border externalization in Costa Rica, based on its humanitarian image (Winters & Mora Izaguirre 2019). She also explored invisibilized forms of reception in Panama, and how these complicate socioeconomic relationships in communities marked by marginalization and securitization (Winters 2019). In Honduras, Nanneke encountered a profound political and social preoccupation with Honduran deportees and imminent caravans (Winters 2018), which, combined with locally cultivated moral/religious convictions, shapes residential reception dynamics. In all three countries, diverse manifestations and interruptions of the so-called ‘controlled flow’ of migrants in transit were evident (Winters & Reichl 2020).

Research sites (2018-2020), map: Elena Reichl.

Furthermore, with Heike Drotbohm she explored the simultaneous articulation of displacement and emplacement for migrants who live transnational lives en route (Drotbohm & Winters 2018; 2021) and elaborated an eventful notion of categorization based on joint analysis of fieldwork in Brazil and Central America, exemplifying how migration-related categories remain connected to particular events, ‘sticking’ to the identity of people on the move (Drotbohm & Winters 2021).

Elena Reichl conducted fieldwork at a migrant reception centre close to Golfito, southern Costa Rica, and in the border town of Paso Canoas. She focused on how security and humanitarian personnel as street-level bureaucrats (Lipsky 1969) took care of and managed migrants in transit from African, Caribbean and Asian countries. While participating in and observing administration practices, Elena pursued migration personnel’s “ideological frame” (Eckert 2020), that is, what they think they should do, and how this frame coupled with feelings and affects fed back into their practices. One main finding is that the officials framed and staged their actions by referring to a humanitarian national identity while also engaging in local and transnational security discourses and practices. The interplay of humanitarian and security concerns played out, for example, at the border, where migrants were meticulously controlled and managed according to an imagined vulnerability based on age, health, gender and origin (Winters and Reichl 2020). Such categorization work at the border and in the centre resulted in (dynamic) migrant statuses like ‘family members’, ‘people from war and conflict countries’ and ‘the injured’ that were composed of legal and social categories (see also Drotbohm & Winters forthcoming). These prescribed statuses had a crucial impact on how migrants experienced their arrival in Paso Canoas and/or their stay at the centre.

Additional findings in the surroundings of the centre suggest that racialized constructs of and economic interests in these migrants on the part of the resident population shaped the ways in which the migrant reception centre was embedded in its environment. The latter finding will be further developed in the paper ‘Dreaded and desired: Transit migration and the local embeddedness of migrant reception centers in Costa Rica’, to be presented at the REFUGOV conference, hosted by the University of Luxembourg in April 2021.




Drotbohm, H. & N. Winters (2021) A shifting yet grounded transnational social field: Interplays of displacement and emplacement in African migrant trajectories across Central America. Population, Space and Place.

Drotbohm, H. & N. Winters (2020) The Event in Migrant Categorization: Exploring Eventfulness Across the Americas. Vibrant. Virtual Brazilian Anthropology 17.

Winters, N. & E. Reichl (2020) Pay and go? Transit migration regimes and migrant navigation in Central America. Blog post for Border Criminologies, 9 April 2020.

Winters, N. (2019) Haciendo-lugar en tránsito. Reflexión sobre la migración africana y trabajo de campo en Darién, Panamá. REMHU, Revista Interdisciplinar da Mobilidade Humana 27 (56).

Winters, N. & C. Mora Izaguirre (2019) Es cosa suya: Entanglements of border externalization and African transit migration in northern Costa Rica. Comparative Migration Studies 7 (27).

Winters, N. (2018) Redrawing the Central American Migrant Caravan: How Other (African) Trajectories Cross Its Path. Blog post for Border Criminologies, 6 November 2018.

Drotbohm, H. & N. Winters (2018) Transnational lives en route. African trajectories of displacement and emplacement across Central America. Working Papers of the Department of Anthropology and African Studies, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, 175.



"The governance of migrant reception and more-than-local stories in southern Costa Rica." Presented at REFUGOV conference Camps across the world: global and local perspectives, April 2021, Luxembourg.

"Navigating transit infrastructures in Central America." Presented at the Anthropology and Geography: Dialogues Past, Present and Future conference of the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI), September 2020, London

“Following or othering? Portraying migrant trajectories and social navigation in Central America.” Presented at the 16th EASA Biennial Conference, July 2020, Lisbon

“(E)merging categories: the production of forced mobility and immobility in Brazil and Central America.” Presented at ‘The End of Negotiations?’ German Anthropological Association Conference September-October 2019, Konstanz.

“Places of im/mobility: infrastructures and node-like shelters in African migrant trajectories through Central America.” Presented at ‘Changing Climates: Struggle, Collaboration, and Justice.’ AAA/CASCA Meeting, November 2019, Vancouver.

“Transnational Lives en Route: African Trajectories of Displacement and Emplacement across Central America.” Presented at ‘Needs and Care Practices for Refugees and Migrants’, 1st Annual CESSMIR Conference, September 2018, Ghent.

“Transitory emplacements. The volatility of African migrant trajectories in Costa Rica.” Presented at ‘Staying, Moving, Settling’, 15th EASA Biennial Conference, August 2018, Stockholm.

“Experiencias actuales de migrantes y refugiados africanos en América Latina.” Panel (with F. Reiffen) at ‘Universality and particularism in the Americas’, 56 ICA International Congress of Americanists, July 2018, Salamanca.

"Es cosa suya: African migrants’ trajectories and temporary presence in La Cruz, Costa Rica." Presented at ‘Latin American Studies in a Globalized World’, XXXVI International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), May 2018, Barcelona.

“Transnational lives en route: African trajectories of displacement and emplacement across Latin America.” Presented at ‘Transnational Lives: Economies, Bureaucracies, and Desires’, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) Workshop, January 2018, Oslo.