NECOCLÍ, Colombia – You stand in line before sunrise every day, passports in hand. Thousands of migrants and their children stand for hours in this west Colombian beach town, waiting to be seated on a boat that will bring them one step closer to the United States – on an incredibly dangerous leg of the journey.
Migrants pay the equivalent of 40 dollars each to take a boat from Necoclí to Acani, near the Colombian border with Panama. Then comes the most dangerous part of the trek into North America: the Darien Gap, a 60 mile long, roadless, lawless stretch of jungle run by smugglers and thieves.
Panamanian officials recovered 50 bodies there this year, but believe the death toll is much higher.
Around 90 percent of the estimated 82,000 migrants who have flocked to the once sleepy city since January of this year were born in Haiti, according to Colombian civil protection. They live in overcrowded hotel rooms or in tents on the beach with no toilets nearby.
Utnica, 5, watches as her mother washes her clothes in a bucket of sea soap. They sit at their tent under the hot sun. You have family in Orlando, Florida. “I want to start a new life and find a job,” said Desir, her mother.
Last month, the US deported thousands of Haitian migrants who arrived in Del Rio, Texas, citing Title 42, a Trump-era health measure that went into effect in March 2020 during the Covid pandemic and under the White House von Biden remains in force.
Nonetheless, smugglers are fueling the perception among migrants that they may be allowed to stay in the US if they embark on the migration.
More than 1,000 migrants arrive in Necoclí every day, but Panama will only accept 500 a day – a huge bottleneck. In the US, Homeland Security officials believe there could be a surge in migrants attempting to cross the US border in October.
Many of the Haitian migrants have lived in Chile and Brazil since the 2010 earthquake that left 1.5 million people homeless in Haiti. They found work in these countries until Covid weighed on Latin American economies and authorities began cracking down on undocumented immigrants, including many Haitian refugees.
Fritz Nor stands by the sea and holds his 6 month old son King, who was born in Brazil. In two weeks he is due to leave with his wife and baby. Nor is it aware that crossing the Darien Gap is dangerous.
But that doesn’t deter him. “This is not a life for a family,” said Nor, who was a construction worker in Brazil. “I want to be a free man. I want documents to work. “
Chile’s government requires all migrants who entered the country before March 2020 to submit a series of documents from their home countries, including criminal background checks, to legalize their status. Most Haitians say they would have to travel home to obtain these documents in person as they are not available online in the country’s outdated record keeping system.
Haitians who manage to cross the border into the United States risk being deported to Haiti. According to research by the Haitian Bridge Alliance (HBA), a Southern California non-profit organization that works for Haitian migrants, the Biden administration has expelled more Haitians than it has during the entire Trump presidency.
The Chilean city police – with the help of Interpol – blew up a smuggling ring for migrants on September 29th, which was helping migrants to get to Mexico and the USA. The head of the city’s anti-trafficking police brigade, Giordano Lanzarini, said the group had moved more than 1,000 Haitians so far this year, including many children traveling alone.
“We don’t have an exact number of how many people have entered Chile, but we do know that around 50 or 60 people come in every day,” Lanzarini said during a press conference about the smugglers. The nine suspects arrested at the time are said to induce migrants to drive north on the road via the WhatsApp intelligence service.
With thousands already in Necoclí and only hundreds allowed to leave each day, the city is now a critical bottleneck in the flow of those seeking refuge in the north.