For migrants bound for U.S., a long wait in a Colombian beach town

·2-min read
Migrants gather next to stores as they wait to cross into Panama to continue their journey toward the U.S., in Necocli

By Henry Esquivel

NECOCLI, Colombia (Reuters) - Some 14,000 migrants - many of them Haitian - remain bottle-necked in the Colombian beach town of Necocli, awaiting their chance to enter Panama and continue their journey to the United States, as border crossing quotas are out-paced by new arrivals, migrants and the town's mayor said.

Tens of thousands of migrants pass through the town annually to catch boats across the Gulf of Uraba toward the jungles of the Darien Gap in Panama, where people smugglers guide groups on foot through one of the most treacherous barriers on the clandestine route to the United States.

The majority of the migrants moving through Necocli are Haitian or Cuban, fleeing dire economic circumstances in their homelands, but others come from African nations like Ghana and Mali. It remains unclear how many will be able to get legal status in the United States.

The lifting of COVID-19 border closures sent the number of migrants soaring, with the foreign ministers of Colombia and Panama agreeing last month that 650 migrants could initially cross per day, with the quota gradually falling to 500.

But each day more than double that number arrive, often camping on the beach awaiting their turn for boat transport.

"Today we're facing another crisis because of the stagnation of more than 14,000 migrants," Necocli mayor Jorge Tobon told Reuters. "More than 1,000 or 1,200 migrants arrive in Necocli daily and we can only dispatch 500 on the boats."

The local hospital, where one Haitian migrant recently died of peritonitis, cannot keep up with demand, Tobon said.

"If this keeps up we could have between 25,000 and 30,000 people stuck by the end of September," he said, calling for the two governments to allow more migrants to cross.

Migrants - many of whom told stories of being robbed or otherwise abused during their journey - said the wait was expensive and stressful.

"Here life is really hard because everything is going up, food, paying $7 (per person for accommodation)," said Haitian migrant Luis. "I want to cross but it's difficult to buy a ticket."

Colombia's migration agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The foreign ministry has previously directed questions to the agency.

(Reporting by Henry Esquivel in Necocli and Herbert Villarraga in Bogota; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Howard Goller)

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