Tension rising among migrants on Colombian-Panama border

By Irene Escudero

Necocli, Colombia, Sep 29 (EFE).- Stuck for a month waiting on the Colombian-Panama border spending the money they still have to get to the United States or turning around and returning to where they started, to countries where their future is not assured. That is the decision facing Haitian migrants in Necocli, Colombia.

“Here things are very difficult. Nobody is helping us,” they say.

“The Colombians are asking for a lot of money from us,” and “They’re making money off of us” are other comments from the migrants.

This is the constant refrain on the Necocli beach, where more than 17,000 people, most of them Haitians, are camping out in plastic tents to protect them from the heavy rains, thus saving the $10 that some local residents are charging them to rent a room to share with other migrants.

The two companies that are transporting them safely in boats to the other side of the Gulf of Uraba, to Acandi, where they begin their trek through the dangerous Darien jungle have already sold out tickets through the end of October.

This means that anyone who arrives In Necocli now – and some 700 – 1,200 migrants are still flowing into the area each day – will have to remain for almost a month paying for lodgning and food in a town that has fallen apart, where there’s no free potable water or public restrooms and where trash is piling up on the street corners.

The Haitians speak of a mother who gave birth in Ecuador during her journey northwards all across South America and who is sleeping in a tent with the baby crying when a storm begins in the middle of the night, shivering and getting sick because nobody has dry clothing.

The boats can legally transport 500 people per day, that figure having been established between the governments of Colombia and Panama in early August to maintain “a controlled flow” of migrants on a border where everything seems to be, in fact, out of control.

“If 1,200 people are coming in each day and you’re able to disembark 500 per day, what does that mean? First, illegal routes are starting to appear, people who are leaving on some other kind of transport that’s not (safe),” one official told EFE at the Ombudsman’s Office.

“This way of criminalizing migration spurs crime, which is an alternative,” the spokesman in Darien for Doctors Without Borders, Owen Breuil, emphasized. “It’s completely stupid. They want to fight against human trafficking and the very fact of imposing a quota fosters it.”

The tension is apparent and this week a Haitian man died after being injured by another one in a fight last Saturday. Thus, there are some migrants who are considering retracing their journeys, back to Medellin or Cali, or even to Chile or Brazil, from where they left because there were no opportunities for them to earn a living.

“With the news that they’re deporting them from the United States, many people are becoming discouraged on the road,” said an official with the Ombudsman’s Office. Some 250 Haitians have already decided to turn around.

The news that’s arriving from the US is worrying and it’s “a key element in discouraging” the migrants, the general coordinator for the Colombian Red Cross, Diego Piñeros, told EFE.

To that can be added the fact that the next step the migrants would have to take is not easy: heading into the unknown jungle where those who emerge say that there are dead bodies along the route and where in recent weeks sexual attacks have skyrocketed.

Just last Tuesday, Panamanian authorities found three bodies in the Turquesa River, in Darien province, that they presume are Haitian migrants who were swept away by the current and drowned. Last week, in the same area, authorities found the bodies of nine more people, who also apparently drowned in the river waters.

The 500 migrants who manage to board one of the boats each day then get into smaller boats to travel along the Acandi River and finally disembark outside the town, although they then don’t really know what to do.

Dozens of the town’s residents flock to the recent arrivals to offer to sell them all sorts of things: from various types of food to transportation in rickety horse-drawn wagons or on mopeds.

Obviously, the migrants must pay for everything.

The heavy rains in this jungle region are one more thing that hinders the journeys of the tens of thousands of people trying to seek better opportunities somewhere in North America and where the government procedures they must follow to be allowed to continue their treks across Central America, Mexico and ultimately the US are clouding their hopes.

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