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Migrants stranded as Panama closes its border

Had Andy tried to cross into Panama a few days earlier, he might be in the United States by now.

Instead, Andy, a 46-year-old Cuban computer technician, is holed up in a warehouse with more than 100 other migrants in the small Colombian town of Turbo, unsure how to continue his journey to the United States but unwilling to turn back.

At the beginning of May, Andy was all set to board a boat to take him across the Gulf of Urabá and on to Panama for the next leg of the trip to the United States, where he would be granted refugee status.

“But I saw that the boat was overcrowded. The coyotes [people smugglers] had packed too many people in there and I was afraid so I got out,” he said, speaking by telephone from Turbo.

And then on 9 May, Panama closed its border with Colombia. The Central American country, which had previously allowed migrants safe passage through their country, began turning back Cubans and other nationals in transit to the United States. Hundreds have been stranded in Turbo, a main way station in thetortuous overland route used by thousands of migrants from the Caribbean, Asia and Africa each year.

Andy says the Cubans are hoping that the Colombian government will arrange an airlift to El Salvador or Mexico to allow them to continue their journey, similar to those organized by Panama and Costa Rica. “Our plan is to stay here until they do an airlift, not back to Cuba, to somewhere closer to our destination,” he said.

Colombian migration authorities say there is no chance of that happening. Colombia can either send them back to their point of entry or to their home country but not help them on their way. To do so, “would be aiding criminal bands that only seek to profit from the needs of foreign citizens”, said Christian Kruger, director of Migration Colombia.

But Andy, who declined to give his last name for fear of reprisals against family members still in Cuba, says that in their current situation the migrants are more vulnerable to people smugglers. “Coyotes have come around here to the warehouse offering to help us cross, but they are charging double now,” he says.

To avoid detection by Colombian and Panamanian authorities, migrants now have to take more circuitous and dangerous routes through the dense jungle separating the two countries. “Some people have decided to try, but it’s too risky,” Andy says.

The Cubans weren’t the only ones caught up by the Panama border closing. Just in May, Migration Colombia detected 756 migrants in transit in Turbo. Since January there have been 3,800. Haitians make up the bulk of those detected, according to migration authorities, followed by Cubans, Congolese, Ghanaians and Senegalese people.

At least 300 have been deported back to the country from which they entered Colombia, in most cases Ecuador, or to their home countries. About 60 were granted safe conduct papers that essentially allow them to continue their voyage by their own means, according to a migration spokesman.

“In the past decade Turbo became a transit point for migrants who because of political or social conflicts in their countries seek to reach the United States,” says Turbo’s mayor, Alejandro Abuchar.

Colombia is an attractive route for migrants around the world because of its porous borders and strategic geographic location and because it is not a crime to have entered the country irregularly.

What is a crime is to smuggle migrants. So far this year Colombia has captured 49 coyotes and is investigating the owner of the warehouse where Andy and his fellow migrants are staying for possible people smuggling.

Andy says they are expecting several groups of fellow migrants to join them in Turbo shortly and that as many as 600 Cubans currently in Ecuador are waiting to see whether to try to make it to Turbo.

But some may not be coming. Thirteen Cubans were detained in Colombia’s Amazon region after wandering lost in the jungle for 20 days after their coyote abandoned them, according to Migration Colombia.

If the number of Cubans in Turbo does swell, it could add pressure on the Colombian government to arrange an airlift.

Nicaragua militarized its border in November to stop the flow of Cubans and migrants of other nationalities, leaving them stranded in Costa Rica, which organized an airlift to El Salvador to allow them to continue their journey northward – then closed its own border with Panama in April. Panama followed suit on 9 May, shutting its border with Colombia then airlifting 3,800 Cubans to Ciudad Juárez, on Mexico’s border with the United States.

But for Colombia, helping Cuban migrants would put it in a difficult diplomatic situation. Cuba has been host to peace talks between the Colombian government and leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Farc, since 2012 and Colombia is unlikely to want to upset Havana by helping its citizens to flee.

However, if a third country, such as Mexico, El Salvador or even the United States were to directly request the Cubans be sent their way, Colombia might agree, a spokesman for Migration Colombia said.

“We are hoping they come up with a solution soon,” says Andy. “I sold everything to pay for the trip. My wife and children are waiting for me to start working and send them money. For that I need to reach the United States soon.”

Source: The Guardian

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