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Children a big part of migration through perilous Darien Gap

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Haitian migrants prepare to board boats in Necocli, Colombia, Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. Migrants have been gathering in Necocli as they move north to Acandi, near Colombia's border with Panama, on their journey to the U.S. border (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

NECOCLI – Every day, at least 500 migrants from around the world sail out of Necocli, a small town on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, across the Gulf of Uraba to the village of Acandi, to start a week-long trek through the jungle that takes them into Panama — the next stop on the long road to the United States.

About one quarter of them are children, according to Panamanian officials, and often still in arms.

While trekking through the lawless jungle known as the Darien Gap, migrants face the risks of being swept away by rivers, assaulted by armed groups or getting lost in the rainforest. Yet thousands of families are making the journey, hoping for a new life.

“We we want God to help us prosper” said Jackie Charles, a Haitian who was boarding a boat in Necocli. “Our country is in crisis and we need to support our family.”

The Darien Gap has long been used by migrants from Cuba and Haiti, who find it almost impossible to fly to Mexico or the U.S. due to visa restrictions. Migrants from African and Asian countries, facing similar problems, have also made the trek after first reaching South America.

Most of those passing through the Darien now are Haitians who had been living in Brazil and Chile and left when the pandemic left them with little or no work.

Necocli has became a major bottleneck on the route north. Boat companies struggle to keep up with demand even as governments have limited the numbers. The Pan-American Highway ends here, only to resurface in Yaviza, on the Panamanian side of the Darien.

Colombia’s Institute for Family Welfare has set up a tent in Necocli to help families arriving with children. Kids are weighed and measured to check for malnutrition. Diapers and baby formula are provided. But in the jungle none of that help is available.

According to Panama’s National Immigration Service, 45,000 migrants crossed the Darien Gap in the first seven months of this year and registered with authorities, including 12,000 children.

Doctors Without Borders, which runs a small clinic in the Panamanian village of Bajo Chiquito, says that children who make it through the jungle often suffer from diarrhea and respiratory infections.

Ronald, a Haitian migrant in Necocli, said that his wife, who is six months pregnant and had been to the town's hospital for help with back pains. “We realize it's dangerous” Ronald said blending Spanish and Portuguese, which he had learned in Brazil. “But we are going because we want a better life.”

He refused to provide his last name because he feared deportation from Colombia, which he entered illegally at the Ecuador border.

Jorge Tobon, Necocli’s mayor, said that respiratory and gastrointestinal problems are the most common reasons that pregnant migrants seek help at the local hospital.

In August, Panama and Colombia agreed to limit the number of migrants crossing through the Darien. Only 500 migrants are allowed to leave Necocli each day on the boats. But many more are arriving each day in the small town, where approximately 14,000 migrants are currently stranded, according to the municipal government.

Tickets on boats leaving Necocli are sold out through the last week of September. ;Migrants wander around the port daily, hoping they can get a ticket, or a spot on a boat that is reserved for tourists, who also travel to beach hotels in Acandi and the nearby village of Capurgana.

“We came from Chile. We have been waiting here for two months and still haven’t been able to get a ticket” said Mali, a Haitian who was at the port. Mali, who also refused to provide her last name, said her family had budgeted $1,600 for the journey to the United States, but had already spent more than $2,000 due to the costs of being stranded in Necocli.

Relatives in the United States could send her money, but because she is undocumented in Colombia, there are few ways to withdraw cash from banks or money transfer companies.

“Because we don’t have any papers, we need Colombian residents to do that for us” Mali explained. “And they ask for commissions that range from 20 to 50%.”