NECOCLI, Colombia – Necoclí is no longer the secluded Afro-Colombian beachside town tourists from neighboring cities used to visit for fried fish and quiet time under the sun.
There is a surge of Haitian migrants hoping to get to the United States. The stop in a smugglers’ route is old. Local officials say the desperation is unprecedented.
Jorge Tobón, the mayor of Necoclí, said the situation grew direr after Panama started to only allow 500 Haitians to cross from Colombia daily.
“If Panama wouldn’t do what is doing, we wouldn’t have this problem,” Tobón said in Spanish.
At times, the town of about 20,000 has doubled in population leaving the migrants and the residents competing for the already limited resources. It’s a humanitarian crisis during the coronavirus pandemic.
Some migrants set up temporary encampments under palm trees where migrants from Cuba and Venezuela also take refuge. Some property owners prefer to rent to migrants who can pay in U.S. dollars.
“I am in search of a better future for my three children,” Edward Cabrera, a Venezuelan migrant on his way to the U.S., said in Spanish.
Necoclí is a stop before a boat ride across the Gulf of Urabá. The boats can’t keep up, so migrants are having to wait longer. Some migrants are setting up temporary informal businesses that compete with locals.
Most of the migrants are young Black Haitian men, but there are pregnant women, children of all ages, and sometimes even grandparents. Many said they had recently left their families in the Caribbean nation.
Aside from Creole and French, some of the Haitian migrants who were waiting in Necoclí were also fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, or English. Some lost their jobs in Brazil, Chile, or other countries in South America. A few were deported from the U.S. and wanted to be reunited with family.
A Haitian man, who used to live in Brazil, said in Portuguese that he and his wife are having to pay $7 each per night and they weren’t counting on having to spend $380 on shelter. A Haitian who used to live in Chile and is traveling with a group said in Spanish he has been waiting to cross to Panama for nearly a month.
“It is not the comfortable way,” he said adding that he also wasn’t comfortable with Chile’s lack of jobs and an ongoing anti-immigrant backlash.
Those who will manage to cross the Gulf of Urabá have challenging days of hiking ahead through the Darién, a dense mountainous jungle where predators hide.
The survivors will have to brave the Chucunaque River, the longest river in Panama. It will take them months to a year to get to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Torres contributed to this report from Miami.