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Thousands of migrants overwhelm Colombian coastal town

More than 10,000 migrants from Haiti, Cuba and several African countries were stranded in Necoclí, Colombia on their journey to the U.S. on July 26 and 27. (Video: The Washington Post)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — More than 10,000 migrants from Haiti, Cuba and several African countries, many trying to reach the United States, are overwhelming a town on Colombia’s north coast, officials say, creating a public health emergency in the midst of the pandemic.

Migrants have long passed through Necoclí, a town of 22,000, on their way to the Darién Gap, the dangerous stretch of jungle that separates South America and Central America. But worsening conditions in Haiti and Cuba, the global economic downturn and the recent reopening of South American borders are fueling a surge that local officials say is greater than any other in the town’s history.

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The one local company that transports migrants by boat from Necoclí to Panama has been unable to keep up with the massive influx of arrivals, creating a bottleneck. Only 12 boats leave the town each day, not enough to offer spots to the nearly 1,000 people who are arriving daily in Necoclí, according to the town’s mayor.

“They’re stuck, they’re desperate, they’re anguished, with an uncertainty about when someone will sell them a ticket,” Mayor Jorge Tobón said Wednesday. “Maybe it’s in 15 days, maybe a month.”

Colombia’s ombudsman, Carlos Camargo, said his office has asked municipal, departmental and national officials to develop contingency plans to address the backup in Necoclí and “guarantee the safe return and protection of human rights of this population.”

Videos circulating on social media and captured by the mayor’s office show crowds of people carrying large backpacks, water jugs, tents, stuffed garbage bags and rolled-up mats pressed up against one another waiting for boats. As they gather around carts selling lemonade and coconuts, few wear masks.

“There are children in arms, women who are pregnant,” Tobón said. “They’re in the parks, on the beach, in the streets.”

Independent journalist Juan Arturo Gómez has reported at length on migration through the Darién Gap.

“They’re crammed into hotels or small rooms of humble residents,” he said. “In a room of 15 square meters, 20 people are living there and spending the night.”

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The hospitals lack the capacity to treat so many people, and the mayor’s office doesn’t have the resources necessary to distribute food and water, Tobón said. With so many people using the municipality’s water, the outdated aqueduct system has collapsed.

“There’s no more water,” Tobón said. “There’s a lot of trash in the streets, and we don’t have enough cars to pick it up.”

The crisis provides a window into a possible post-pandemic wave of migration as countries across the region suffer growing unemployment and food insecurity. Many Latin American countries, including Colombia, continue to see some of the world’s highest death rates from covid-19, but borders across the region have begun to reopen.

Colombia reopened its borders with Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil in May and with Venezuela in June. About 33,000 people from Haiti, Cuba, Chile, Senegal, Ghana and other countries have traveled through this region so far this year, according to the Colombian ombudsman’s office.

Many of the migrants arriving in Necoclí now have been living in countries such as Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, waiting for an opportunity to cross through Central America to the United States, Tobón said.

It’s not the first time Necoclí has seen large groups of migrants passing through to Panama, said Hugo Torres, the bishop of nearby Apartadó. Other surges took place in 2015, 2018 and earlier this year — but never, he said, at such high numbers.

Torres suspected that many of those arriving in Necoclí this week may have fled Haiti because of rising instability following the assassination this month of President Jovenel Moïse. Many others, he said, have left countries in South America after struggling to find work.

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As videos and photos of the crowds in Necoclí spread on social media, advocates and politicians in Colombia called on the government to intervene.

“It’s totally barbaric, in inhumane conditions, with children and pregnant women,” tweeted Nicolás Albeiro Echeverry, a member of Colombia’s House of Representatives. “This needs to stop immediately.”

Gómez, the journalist, predicted the surge could continue for at least the next three months — and possibly through the end of the year.

He said some local vendors are taking advantage of the influx of travelers by hiking up prices on food and basic products. A pot or pan that usually costs $3 now costs as much as $20, he said.

Torres, the bishop, said many migrants are being forced to buy resale tickets for boat rides, pushing prices out of reach for many. He fears that Necoclí lacks both the preparation and the capacity to serve the basic needs of the 10,000 additional people now living there.

“A town that sometimes has difficulties supplying drinking water to its own citizens has now burst,” he said.

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