When the loudspeaker announced that the last ship of the day across Colombia’s Gulf of Urabá would begin boarding, a desperate scrum of Haitians rushed forward, fighting for space on the rickety vessel.
Most had been trapped in this remote Caribbean coastal city for days, trapped in a migration bottleneck caused by the easing of Covid travel restrictions and growing unrest, poverty and violence across the region.
In Necoclí, the water in the shelters was without water most days and the beach under the coconut trees was getting dirtier. Crossing the gulf would not only represent the next step towards the United States, but a way out of purgatory into paradise.
Since January, more than 25,000 irregular migrants have passed through this part of the country, compared to 4,000 last year, when migration was halted due to strict closures in the region.
Necoclí, a city of 20,000 best known for its beaches and seafood cocktails, is struggling to accommodate some 10,000 newcomers amid chronic water shortages. Travel companies have boarded more boats, but not enough to meet demand, and more migrants arrive every day.
Local officials have declared a “public calamity”, warning that they cannot cope with the influx of thousands of people who have been trapped between the sudden increase in migration and the chaotic infrastructure of the human smuggling business.
“This is a historical and recurring phenomenon; Colombia is not the cause or the destination of this migration, ”Juan Francisco Espinosa, director of Colombia’s migration agency, told reporters this week. “This year we are seeing figures that are absolutely alarming.”
Necoclí has long been a transitory way station for migrants, but now the numbers are much higher than usual due to worsening conditions in the countries of origin, such as Haiti, Venezuela and Cuba, and the relaxation of the travel restriction.
About 75% of the 25,000 migrants who have passed through Necoclí and the surrounding region this year are from Haiti, which was thrown into chaos by the assassination of its president last month.
One of those stranded on the beach was 20-year-old Roberde Deneus, who left her home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s sprawling and dilapidated capital, two years ago. Amid rampant unemployment and spiraling gang wars, he moved to Brazil, where for a time he found work. When that was over, he decided to head north to the US.
“I don’t care how long it takes me, that’s where I’m going,” he said one recent night, grinning widely as he had a beer on the beach. “I’ll see you in Miami.”
Having already traveled from Brazil to Colombia via Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, Deneus was waiting to cross the Gulf of Urabá and begin the arduous five-day trek through the Darien Gap jungle that separates Colombia and Panama.
That crossing is one of the most dangerous routes in the world in the Americas, a strip of lawless jungle riddled with bandits, disease and wild animals. Beyond that are Central America and Mexico, where police and criminals often target migrants for rape, robbery, and murder.
For now, however, Deneus was more concerned with getting on a ship.
“I have a ticket for a boat in four days,” he said. “Until then, I hope.”
In Necoclí, an entire economy has grown up around migrants. Street vendors sell camping equipment and kitchen utensils to migrants. A sign advertising the boat tickets is written in Haitian Creole and the price is in dollars.
Unlike many of his compatriots, Walker Adonis, 37, speaks English and Spanish, and has lived legally in the United States for several years. While waiting for his turn on a boat, he was helping fellow migrants overcome language barriers, he said. “Haitians are workers, but our country is a disaster.”
Long before the brazen assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, allegedly at the hands of Colombian mercenaries, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere was ravaged by violence and poverty. Thousands of people have been forced from their homes due to gang warfare, and the UN estimates that nearly half the population is in need of immediate food assistance.
“In Haiti you either have it or you don’t have it,” Adonis said.
On Friday, the ministers of Panama and Colombia pledged to work together to resolve the crisis, with coordination to improve transportation and protection for criminals in the Darien Gap, although the details of the plan were still vague.
“Only greater economic development and democracy in the countries of Latin America will make each nation retain its nationals with opportunities for life, employment and development,” said Marta Lucía Ramírez, vice president and foreign minister of Colombia.
Although most of the migrants currently in Necoclí are Haitians, a sizeable group comes from Venezuela, which has been mired in a political and economic crisis for the better part of a decade.
A few weeks ago, a group of travelers, mostly Venezuelans, set up a makeshift camp of tents and hammocks on the beach, a few steps away from the pier, where families, including young children and elderly women, live while saving for a ticket.
“In Venezuela we have absolutely nothing,” said Johana Guadalupe, 20, who is three months pregnant and decided to leave for the United States after a year of begging with her husband on the streets of Quito, Ecuador. “We want to give our son a better life than we can have at home.”
Zaida Salón, 50, has stayed in the camp with her family for a week and has no money to continue the journey. His brothers are helping, selling camping equipment to other migrants who pay in dollars. The family depends on a local church for food distribution.
“If I go back to Venezuela, I will die,” said Salón, who was a member of the national guard until he defected last year. “The only option is to keep moving forward.”
Meanwhile, along the usually sleepy boulevard, a crowd of migrants lined up outside a pier, jostling to board the last of the day’s boats. Deneus helped some friends with their bags, wrapped in garbage bags to keep them dry in the choppy waters. “Bon Voyage!” he yelled over accordion music from a nearby bar. “I’ll see you very soon.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism