NECOCLÍ, Colombia - “We’re human beings! Where are our human rights?” shouted Nikelson St. Fleur in protest yesterday outside the town hall in Necoclí, Colombia alongside a group of 80 Haitian migrants. The port town is a gateway to the Urabá Gulf, the largest estuary on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, which migrants must cross to reach the border with Panama.
St. Fleur, 36, his wife, 37, and their two young children aged two and six are among hundreds of migrants trapped in the town after Colombia extended its land and sea border closures with Panama in January for a further three months to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The border has been shut since March.
They’re stranded on the wrong side of the Gulf, unable to cross into Panama to continue traveling north through Central America towards their final destination: the U.S.
On the beach, families camp out in closely-packed tents, thickening the hot, humid air with smoke as they burn firewood to cook their next meal. Others seek respite from the beating sun inside their brightly colored polyester tents. While young kids shriek and play, their parents chatter in Haitian Creole, Spanish, French, or Portuguese, and some in Arabic.
The scene resembles the refugee camps that line the U.S.–Mexico border. But some 3,000 miles south, out of the spotlight, migrants here in Necoclí have been living a similar reality for weeks or months, dreaming of the same end goal.
There are over 680 migrants on Necoclí’s beaches — the majority are Haitian citizens, according to Colombia’s Immigration Department. Others come from Cuba, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Congo, Guinea, Somalia, and Yemen. Municipal officials told local media they think there are over 1,200 migrants stranded here.
Like many Haitian migrants, St. Fleur and his family left their home over a decade ago for Ecuador after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake left the country’s infrastructure in tatters, killing some 300,000 people, and displacing more than 32,000. Natural disasters, combined with political crises, resurgent gang violence, and an economy on its knees explain why the number of Haitian migrants in the U.S. tripled between 1990 to 2018.
Guerdy Sully, aged 29, left Haiti with her five-year-old son, Valencio, and says the boy longs for his birthplace, school, and friends in Brazil, where the family lived for six years before arriving in Colombia. Every time Valencio begs to return to their old life, Sully reminds herself she’s fighting for him.
Sully, who was studying to become a doctor in Haiti, said camping out on the beach is particularly difficult for women, some of whom are heavily pregnant and worry for their unborn babies. “Menstruation is really complicated,” she said, and that she has to pay to use restaurant and hotel bathrooms.
The situation is challenging for everyone. “Living without a bathroom, without fresh water … it’s not a life,” said 31-year-old Haitian Dinelio Manace. “That’s what’s been so difficult for me, living with no dignity. Head down.”
Cuban Carlos Alberto Guevara, aged 50, has been stuck in Necoclí for a month with his wife and five-year-old son. The most frustrating part for him, he said, is watching tourists catch boats every morning to cross the Gulf to the idyllic Colombian beach towns of Capurganá and Sapzurro.
Boat tour companies such as El Caribe SAS now refuse to sell tickets to undocumented migrants after they were threatened with losing their boating licenses by the Colombian authorities across the Gulf. They worry about the spread of COVID-19 through their region, which lacks sufficient healthcare services to cope with an outbreak of the virus, Andrés Felipe Vargas, the company’s legal representative, told VICE World News.
“This treatment is only for migrants,” claimed Guevara. “Others come along, catch their boat, and off they go.”
Manace said he’s suffered discrimination and racism daily since leaving Haiti in 2017. Gimena Sánchez of the Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA) think tank said that the region treats Haitian migrants particularly cruelly. “They face racism, xenophobia, and a more hostile environment than other migrants,” she said.
The language barrier doesn’t help — not all speak Spanish or Portuguese.
“The Colombian state doesn’t have a humanitarian protection policy for this population profile,” said Camila Espitia Fonseca, an independent migration analyst, who called the situation in Necoclí a humanitarian crisis. Only Venezuelan migrants receive aid from a $1.4 billion program funded by the United Nations, the International Organization for Migration, and USAID.
Trafficking networks take advantage of desperate migrants like Haitian Juste Calisthene, aged 33. Illegal armed groups charge for notoriously dangerous boat crossings across the Gulf at night, starting at $250 per person, said Espitia.
The trip cost Calisthene and his wife $800, leaving them penniless. But rough seas and a broken-down motor sent the boat — filled with 33 Haitians — back to Necoclí after it began to fill with water. Other migrants haven’t been so lucky. Only a few weeks ago, seven Haitians drowned in a nighttime crossing, three of them minors.
Once they make it across the Gulf, a far more grueling challenge awaits: crossing the Darien Gap. This roadless 60-mile stretch of jungle, which can take up to two weeks to cross in bad weather, is riddled with armed paramilitaries linked to the Clan del Golfo, one of Colombia’s largest drug trafficking organizations. They rob and sexually assault female migrants along the way, Red Cross research shows. And not everyone makes it. In 2016, 89 percent of migrant deaths in South America occurred in Colombia; the majority between the Urabá Gulf and Darien Gap, according to the International Organization for Migration.
But the risks don’t discourage migrants from pressing north on their journey to the U.S. “They are practically in a state of forced migration, so whatever happens, they’re going to continue,” Espitia said.
Although migration from Colombia to Panama has increased in recent years, especially among children, it’s nothing new, said Sánchez at WOLA. But the pandemic has further restricted movement through the region as governments have closed and militarized borders.
Colombia’s Immigration Office said that helping illegal migrants move around is “irresponsible” and would put the population’s safety at risk. Instead, they offer services such as Libertapp, a mobile app for denouncing human trafficking.
“They’ve treated us like dogs here,” said Guevara, from Cuba. “It’s as if we don’t exist.”
The local government is organizing health checks and basic humanitarian aid for migrants, the Deputy Commander of Necoclí’s police force, Andres Rodríguez, told VICE World News. But those stranded here say they’ve been asking for food, water tanks, and showers for weeks and received nothing. The only food donations have come from the Catholic Diocese in Apartadó, a neighboring municipality. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said they’re supporting local authorities from the sidelines, and the Colombian Red Cross is on standby.
And while mounting pressure from repeated angry protests has triggered discussions between authorities and local government bodies to help migrants leave Necoclí, the population is at breaking point.
“Soon the rainy season will start,” said 37-year-old Miriam Jean-François, from Haiti. “That’s why we need to leave here. We just need to cross.”