“African trajectories across Central America” is a research project carried out at the Department of Anthropology and African Studies (ifeas) at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. It is funded by the German Research Foundation DFG and runs from 2018 to 2022.

Our Focus

Through this research project, we seek insight into emerging trajectories of people on the move in Central America. Although we respond to the recent diversification of migrants and refugees in the region, we situate their experiences in historically shaped, globe-spanning migration regimes. In this way, we elaborate critical understandings of the dynamics between migration, displacement/emplacement and im/mobilities.

Our 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 in-depth understanding of migrant trajectories through these interconnected journeys and nodes, we counter simplistic, or all-too policy-oriented representations of migrants and refugees en route.


Due to its geographical location, Central America has historically served as the gate to coveted North American destinations for its own inhabitants as well as for other travellers. Recently, however, the region experienced an increased diversity and visibility of people on the move, which reflects broader developments in the global migration landscape. Factors including the increased difficulty of migrating to Europe; the relative porosity of borders in Latin America; and new or ongoing socioeconomic and political crises, have spurred new migration routes towards and through the Americas.

At the same time, in Central America and Mexico, processes of border externalization and militarization have increasingly complicated trajectories since the 1990s. Under the banner of a war on drugs and organized crime, a widespread system of US-directed migration control targets migrants and refugees and the marginalized communities they cross throughout the region. In practice, this control entails discrimination, illegalization, harassment, violence, and a deep sense of insecurity, differentiated along ethnic, national, racial, religious, age and gender lines. The human suffering that this system of control creates has spurred manifold humanitarian initiatives such as legal counselling or the provision of accommodation in shelters.
Yet the governments of the region pay little consistent attention to migrants beyond national security concerns and crisis-related forms of humanitarian aid. Simultaneously, members of local communities express ambivalence about migrants’ (temporary) presence. Although residents may acknowledge their plight and the opportunities for local business that migrants generate, they may also fear that the business of human smuggling will invite criminal actors and activities into their communities, or worry about the depletion of their communities’ limited resources (such as water) if these are used for migrant reception. These ambivalences are deepened by racialized discourses that further complicate the position of indigenous or Afro-descendant migrants.

Our focus on commonly overlooked yet omnipresent African trajectories through the Americas fits a broader phenomenon of increasingly diversified African migration within the Global South. Early, however, we realized an intersecting collectivization with other migrant groups (such as Cubans and Haitians) along racial, ethnic and national lines. The question of whether and to what extent actors meet or distinguish themselves along these categories of difference, or whether they are classified by political or humanitarian actors as such, will be of primary concern in future research.


We seek insight into emerging trajectories of people on the move in Central America. We aim to contribute to the theorization of ambivalent, entangled, and localized displacement dynamics while simultaneously countering simplistic interpretations and representations of migrants en route within and beyond the Global South.

Our research question is: how do migrant trajectories take shape through journeys as well as through the migration nodes that are part of these journeys?

In this way, we pay attention to the entanglements between what moves and what remains, mobility and immobility, displacement and emplacement. Journeys refer to the routes and ways migrants and refugees travel, including the possibility of multiple departures, (imagined) destinations, and drawn-out circulations. By migration nodes, we mean the localized and institutionalized encounters that represent key points of im/mobility in these journeys. These include encounters with actors engaged in smuggling, surveillance and solidarity, in local and transnational migration industries.

We do not equate journeys with mobility and nodes with immobility. Rather, we intend to bring journeys and nodes together to get a better sense of the relationships and tensions between them, and how their im/mobilities shape trajectories as well as the communities they pass through. This approach allows us to go beyond reductionist and presentist approaches to people on the move.


We conduct ethnographic, multi-sited empirical research that is realised via two complementary fieldwork strategies:

a) mobile: ‘following’ migrant journeys’; and
b) stationary: ‘studying through’ case studies of migration nodes.

Our mobile strategy ‘follows’ journeys by studying migrants and refugees who cross selected border localities rather than by literally following them as they move, given the many risks clandestine border-crossings pose. Throughout the research we keep in touch with several migrants and refugees to re-construct common trajectory experiences based on their narratives.

Our stationary strategy ‘studies through’ organizations and their discourses (by attending events, documenting struggles over language, tracing the back and forth of decision-making between different protagonists and across space and time) and uses these case studies to interpret localized and institutionalized images of, responses to and experiences with migrants and refugees. Bringing these mobile and stationary research strategies together in one ‘extended field site’ enables a holistic and in-depth view of emerging trajectories in Central America. We conduct fieldwork in Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.

Bringing these strategies together in one ‘extended field site’ enables a holistic and in-depth view of emerging trajectories in Central America.