When the loudspeaker announced that the day’s last boat across Colombia’s Gulf of Urabá would begin boarding, a desperate scrum of Haitians rushed forward, jostling for spaces on the rickety craft.
Most had been stuck in this remote Caribbean coastal town for days, trapped in a migration bottleneck caused by the loosening of Covid travel restrictions and growing unrest, poverty and violence across the region.
In Necoclí, the water in the hostels was out most days, and the beach under the coconut trees was getting dirtier. Crossing the gulf would not just represent the next step towards the US but a way out of purgatory in paradise.
Since January, more than 25,000 irregular migrants have passed through this part of the country, compared with 4,000 last year, when migration ground to a halt because of strict lockdowns across the region.
An aerial view of stranded migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela and several African countries at the entrance of a port as they board a boat to leave Necoclí. Photograph: Joaquín Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images
Necoclí, a town of 20,000 people better known for its beaches and seafood cocktails, is struggling to accommodate around 10,000 new arrivals, amid chronic water shortages. Travel companies have put on 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 an influx of thousands of people who have become trapped between the sudden surge of migration and the haphazard infrastructure of the people-smuggling business.
“This is a recurring and historical phenomenon; Colombia is not the cause or the destination of this migration,” Juan Francisco Espinosa, the head of Colombia’s migration agency told reporters this week. “This year we’re seeing numbers that are absolutely alarming.”
Necoclí has long been a transitory way station for migrants, but numbers are now much higher than usual due to worsening conditions in countries of origin – such as Haiti, Venezuela and Cuba – and the loosening of travel restrictions.
About 75% of the 25,000 migrants that have passed through Necoclí and the surrounding region this year are from Haiti, which was thrust further into chaos by the assassination of its president last month.
One of those left stranded on the beach was Roberde Deneus, 20, who left his home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s rundown and sprawling capital, two years ago. Amid rampant unemployment and spiraling gang wars, he moved to Brazil, where for a time he found work. When that dried up, he decided to head north for the US.
“I don’t care how long it takes, that’s where I’m going,” he said one recent night, grinning broadly while sipping a beer on the beach. “I’ll see you in Miami.”
Having already travelled 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 Darién Gap jungle that separates Colombia and Panama.
A migrant carrying a baby crosses the Chucunaque River after walking for five days in the Darién Gap. Photograph: Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images
That crossing is one of the world’s most dangerous routes in the Americas, a lawless swath of jungle plagued by bandits, disease and wild animals. Beyond that lie Central America and Mexico, where police and criminals routinely target migrants for rape, robbery and murder.
For now, however, Deneus was most concerned about getting on a boat.
“I have a ticket for a boat in four days,” he said. “Until then, I wait.”
In Necoclí, an entire economy has grown up around the migrants. Street vendors hawk camping gear and cookware to the migrants. A sign advertising boat tickets is written in Haitian Creole, and the price in dollars.
Unlike many of his compatriots, Walker Adonis, 37, speaks both English and Spanish, having lived legally in the US for several years. While waiting for his turn on a boat, he was helping his fellow migrants navigate the language barriers, he said. “Haitians are hardworking but our country is a mess.”
Long before the brazen assassination of President Jovenel Moïse – allegedly at the hands of Colombian mercenaries – the western hemisphere’s poorest nation was wracked by violence and poverty. Thousands of people have been forced from their homes by gang warfare, and the UN estimates that nearly half of the population is in need of immediate food assistance.
“In Haiti you either have, or you don’t,” said Adonis.
Migrants from Venezuela in Necoclí check the smell of a poison they buy for their journey in the Darién Gap. Photograph: Joaquín Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images
On Friday, ministers from Panama and Colombia pledged to work together to resolve the crisis, with coordination to improve transport and protection from criminals in the Darién Gap, though details of the plan were still vague.
“Only greater economic development and democracy in Latin American countries will make each nation retain their nationals with opportunities for life, employment and development,” said Marta Lucía Ramírez, Colombia’s vice-president and foreign minister.
Although most of the migrants currently in Necoclí are Haitians, a sizable group come from Venezuela, which has been mired in political and economic crisis for the best part of a decade.
A few weeks ago, one group of mostly Venezuelan travelers set up a makeshift camp of tents and hammocks on the beach, a few paces beyond the dock, where families including young children and elderly women are living while they save up for a ticket.
“In Venezuela we have absolutely nothing,” said Johana Guadalupe, 20, who is three months pregnant and decided to head towards the US after a year of begging with her husband on the streets of Quito, Ecuador. “We want to give our child a better life than we can back home.”
Zaida Salón, 50, has been staying in the camp with her family for a week, and has no money for the onward journey. Her brothers are helping out, selling camping equipment to other migrants who pay in dollars. The family rely on a local church for food handouts.
“If I go back to Venezuela, I’ll die,” said Salón, who was a member of the national guard until she deserted last year. “The only option is to keep moving forward.”
Meanwhile, along the usually sleepy boulevard, a crowd of migrants lined up outside a dock, jostling to board the last of the day’s boats. Deneus helped some friends with their bags, wrapped in bin liners to keep them dry on the choppy waters. “Bon voyage!” he shouted above accordion music from a nearby bar. “I’ll see you very soon.”