Coronavirus pandemic traps 2,000 migrants in Darien, some already ill

By Giovanna Ferullo, Bienvenido Velasco and Carlos Lemos

Lajas Blancas, Panama, Apr 17 (efe-epa).- Almost 2,000 irregular migrants are stranded in “no man’s land” in Panama near the border with Colombia due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while at least 17 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to authorities.

Those infected have been isolated and are being treated.

In Darien there are three migratory stations that now house 1,991 people, the vast majority of whom are Haitians, although there are also 38 Cubans, and others from Africa and Asia. In addition, more than 530 migrants are in the Planes de Gualaca camp, near the border with Costa Rica.

Of these, 23 percent are children and adolescents, some even unaccompanied, according to International Organization for Migration (IOM) figures to which EFE had access.

The sudden closure of the borders due to the pandemic has overwhelmed the migrant assistance program, known as controlled flow, because it went from a population in transit to a stationary one, IOM representative in Panama, Idiam Osorio, said.

Migrants “do not want to continue being in Panama, we want to continue on our way to Costa Rica and the North,” but “we know that the border is closed and we need to live as human beings,” insisted 26-year-old Haitian Marco, who participated on Friday in a meeting in Las Lajas with the Panamanian authorities and officials of international organizations involved in the issue.

The meeting aimed to listen to migrants and look for solutions that guarantee them enough food, water and sanitary services during their stay in Panama. Although no one can say how long it will last.

“We are under the rain, there are pregnant women, sick children, the food is not enough. People in Peñita are selling us things for double the price, and we are paying a dollar a night to sleep on the floor of a house,” said Marco.

“We are not here to challenge the government, but we want to tell them that we are tired, we want a change. They tell us that in a few days the changes will begin, but we don’t know when,” he added.

Panamanian director of the National Migration Service, Samira Gozaine, told EFE that the government is working to make the “involuntary stay” of the migrants in Darien “as comfortable as possible”, and that they were informed of this during Friday’s meeting, in which “consensus was reached.”

Darien Governor Álvaro Bristán has asked for help from entrepreneurs in the province, who are going to bring tents to be able to separate the migrants “into more manageable groups of 500 people.”

Goizaine added that the Immigration office is seeking emergency resources for the provision of food and water as soon as possible, while the Ministry of Health has promised to increase the personnel on site to test for the new coronavirus.

She confirmed that there are 17 migrants infected with COVID-19, with 15 of them isolated in the camp and stable, while the other two, one Haitian and one Cuban, were taken to hotels that function as hospitals in the capital so they can be followed up more thoroughly.

These migrants were infected by personnel who have tested positive for COVID-19, and tests are being carried out on the contacts they have had, the migration director said.

The director of the National Border Service of Panama, Oriel Ortega, assured EFE that the authorities are making “a joint, comprehensive effort to alleviate the needs of migrants while the border is closed.”

“We have more than 2,500 migrants stranded in Panama due to the COVID-19 situation. Irregular migration is not a crime, however, we have to monitor the coronavirus situation,” he added. EFE-EPA


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