NECOCLI, Colombia – Every day, at least 500 migrants from all over the world leave Necocli, a small town on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, crossing the Gulf of Uraba to the village of Acandi, to begin a trek of week in the jungle that takes them to Panama – the next stop on the long road to the United States.
About a quarter of them are children, according to Panamanian officials, and often still in arms.
Walking through the lawless jungle known as Darien Gap, migrants run the risk of being swept away by rivers, assaulted by armed groups, or getting lost in the rainforest. Yet thousands of families are making the trip, hoping for a new life.
“We want God to help us prosper,” said Jackie Charles, a Haitian who boarded a boat in Necocli. “Our country is in crisis and we must support our family. “
The Darien Gap has long been used by migrants from Cuba and Haiti, who find it almost impossible to travel to Mexico or the United States due to visa restrictions. Migrants from African and Asian countries, facing similar challenges, also made the trip after reaching South America for the first time.
Most of those crossing the Darien are now Haitians who lived in Brazil and Chile and left when the pandemic left them little to no work.
Necocli has become a major bottleneck on the northern route. Boat companies are struggling to keep up with demand even though governments have limited numbers. The Pan-American Highway ends here, resurfacing in Yaviza, on the Panamanian side of Darien.
The Colombian Institute for Family Welfare has set up a tent in Necocli to help families arriving with children. Children are weighed and measured to check for malnutrition. Diapers and formula are provided. But in the jungle, none of these aids are 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 children crossing the jungle often suffer from diarrhea and respiratory infections.
Ronald, a Haitian migrant in Necocli, said his wife, who is six months pregnant and had been in the city hospital for back pain. “We realize it’s dangerous,” said Ronald, mixing Spanish and Portuguese, which he had learned in Brazil. “But we are going there because we want a better life.”
He refused to give his last name because he feared being deported from Colombia, where he entered illegally on the Ecuadorian border.
Jorge Tobon, mayor of Necocli, said respiratory and gastrointestinal problems are the most common reasons pregnant migrants seek help at the local hospital.
In August, Panama and Colombia agreed to limit the number of migrants crossing the Darien. Only 500 migrants are allowed to leave Necocli every day on the boats. But many more arrive every day in the small town, where around 14,000 migrants are currently stranded, according to the city government.
Tickets on boats departing from Necocli are sold until the last week of September. Migrants walk around the port on a daily basis, hoping to get a ticket or a place on a boat 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 we still have not been able to get a ticket, ”said Mali, a Haitian who was at the port. Mali, who also declined to provide his last name, said his family had planned $ 1,600 for the trip to the United States, but had already spent more than $ 2,000 due to costs related to the blockade at Necocli .
Relatives in the United States could send her money, but since she is undocumented in Colombia, there are few ways to withdraw money from banks or money transfer companies.
“Because we don’t have papers, we need Colombian residents to do it for us,” Mali explained. “And they ask for commissions that range from 20 to 50%.”