Migrants began lining up on Necoclí beach, on Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast, early in the morning. Before them was the Gulf of Urabá, a stretch of the Caribbean Sea that interrupted their long journey north to the United States.
Once they cross – if they cross – they face a 60-kilometer hike through the forests of Darien Gap to Panama, and eventually Costa Rice and Nicaragua. If they survive that far, they will join the desperate stream of people heading north through Central America, all on their way to the US-Mexico border.
But for now, hopeful visitors at Necocli are at a standstill. There is only one ferry company that can ferry migrants across the bay, and its capacity has been stretched to the limit.
“We try to move eight or nine hundred migrants a day, but it’s difficult. Normally three or four hundred people, maybe five, but now nine hundred people day in and day out. I haven’t yet. never seen anything like this before,” said Edward Villarreal, who works as a translator for the Caribbean ferry company SAS.
In the past few weeks, up to 15,000 migrants have arrived in Necocli, according to the Colombian inspectorate’s office. The town, which normally has a population of just 22,000, is at a breaking point. “All the health systems, public services and food have collapsed,” Necocli Mayor Jorge Tobon told local media last week.
Caribe SAS currently has a waiting list of more than 8,000 travelers who have already purchased tickets but now have to wait for their next seat. Villarreal told CNN that tickets were sold out through August 10.
The economic downturn of the pandemic
Most of those who make this journey are looking for a second chance, according to CNN interviews with dozens of migrants as well as the town government.
Edem Agbanzo, 30, has a culinary degree and first immigrated from Togo to Ghana to work as a chef. But after a year, violent clashes between Muslims and Catholics in western Africa forced him to flee, he said.
In 2019, he flew to Chile and found informal work as a gardener – then lost it again when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. After more than a year waiting for the country to reopen, he and a friend set off on July 17.
Agbanzo hopes to move to Georgia, where he has relatives who can sponsor his visa application
His story is similar to that of the thousands of migrants in Necoclí, most of them Haitian, who had previously settled in other South American countries such as Brazil and Chile but were pushed back by economic pressure in the context of Covid-19 lockdown and work restrictions.
Many people worked in informal jobs before the pandemic and were particularly vulnerable to falling into extreme poverty as economies tightened last year.
Georgina Ducleon, originally from Haiti, lived in Rio de Janeiro for more than six years, she told CNN. She is currently traveling with her two young children. Both are under 5 years old and have Brazilian citizenship.
Their family lost income when the pandemic broke out and Rio came to a standstill, and they no longer believed there could be a future there, says Duclean.
She’s scared about the jungle and the long road ahead. “But we put our lives in the hands of God and with His help we will win,” she told CNN.
According to Juan Francisco Espinosa, Colombia’s Director of Immigration, local authorities are particularly interested in Haitian migrants, who tend to travel with their families.
“We need to make sure we provide protection for all of these people and especially the children on the road,” Espinosa said last week.
The Colombian Red Cross has set up tents on the beach to help migrants understand their options. “Our priority is to keep them informed, many of them don’t know where they’re going or have very little travel plans,” said Red Cross volunteer Diana Marcela, herself a Venezuelan-born convert. to Colombia in 2016, said.
“I share a lot of their pain… I know how they must feel,” she said of the migrants.
Among the services provided by the Red Cross is a free Wi-Fi hotspot where migrants can connect to the Internet. Much of the trip planning takes place over WhatsApp chats, where migrants share tips and warnings about dangers ahead.
Esteban Nuñez of Ciudad Bolivar in Venezuela is participating in five group chats. He showed CNN a shared video of successful migrants recalling their journey through Panama and Mexico, before finally reaching New York’s Times Square.
But in another group, a woman’s voice message shared a different experience: Her group was robbed twice in the woods, and she said she witnessed corpses, mutilated bodies and many rapes in the jungle.
Most of the advice in these groups deals with money and how to make the journey cheaper. Nuñez said he spent $180 on equipment and supplies to prepare for his journey, including tents, walking shoes and mattresses. The trip to Necoclí alone cost him the equivalent of $200 in bus, food and accommodation.
A flight from Bogota to Panama City costs only about US$75 – but it is not an option for migrants traveling undocumented or without a valid visa to Panama.
Remi Wilfor, a Haitian who used to live in Chile, dreams of one day going to Brooklyn, New York, where an aunt lives. But after cashing out all of his savings in July — the equivalent of $900 — he spent $800 just to reach Necocli.
Now he’s terrified of trying to make the rest of the trip on just $100.
On Saturday, Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano arrived in Necoclí. He pledged the Colombian Navy would build an emergency dock to ease the stress on the town, by allowing more boats to pick up the migrants and take them across the bay.
But he also stressed that the problem requires a larger solution. Foreign governments in the region must hold talks to regulate the flow of migrants, as more and more people are fleeing the economic misery caused by the pandemic, he said.
Journalist Juan Arturo Gomez contributed reporting.