Haitian Migrants Inundate A Colombia Town On The Way To U.S. Border – NPR

A small town in northern Colombia has seen a surge in Haitian migrants — they’ve pitched tents in every available spot. The migrants are trying to make their way to the United States.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Many Haitians take a roundabout, overland route to get to the U.S. because of a lack of a visa. And as Haitian migrants gathered on the U.S. border with Mexico, another border crisis is brewing farther south. That journey starts in South America. John Otis has more.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: The Colombian town of Necocli sits on the Caribbean coast near the Panamanian border. Necocli used to fill up with tourists. But there’s no longer any room for them. Now Haitian migrants, who lack money for hotels, have pitched tents on nearly every inch of the town’s sandy beaches.

BRUNO NOEL: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Among the campers is Bruno Noel, who’s been stranded here for two weeks. Like many of the migrants stuck in Necocli, Noel left Haiti following a devastating 2010 earthquake and resettled in South America.

NOEL: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: (Speaking Spanish).

NOEL: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: (Speaking Spanish).

NOEL: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Speaking in broken Spanish, he describes working in the laundry room of a hotel in Brazil. But the pay was low. And he says there was a lot of discrimination against dark-skinned Haitians.

NOEL: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Now that Donald Trump has been replaced by President Biden and pandemic travel restrictions have been lifted, Noel thinks it will be easier to get into the U.S., so do thousands of other Haitians who had been living in South America and are now making their way north. Their progress has come to a sudden halt in Necocli.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

OTIS: This is the main pier in Necocli. From here, boats cross a small bay to a spot in the Darien jungle near Colombia’s northern border with Panama. There are no roads connecting the two countries, so the hour-long boat ride is the only way migrants can continue their journey through the treacherous Darien Gap towards the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: But tickets are scarce. And as migrants clamor to board the boats, dock workers struggle to keep order.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: The problem is that Panama is allowing just 500 Haitians per day to enter the country from Colombia. As a result, only 500 migrants per day are allowed to board the boats in Necocli.

CESAR ZUNIGA: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: However, twice as many Haitians are arriving in Necocli every day, says Cesar Zuniga, a town official in charge of emergency management. Many must wait up to a month for a seat on the boats. And that has created a huge migrant bottleneck. Colombian officials estimate that 19,000 Haitians are now camped out in Necocli. For many businesses, this influx has been a godsend. The migrants buy food, clothes and camping gear, helping merchants recover from the economic meltdown caused by COVID.

OSCAR HERNANDEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Oscar Hernandez, who owns a perfume store, shows me his souvenir collection of gourds, a Haitian currency his customers have gifted him. He says Haitians account for 80% of his sales.

HERNANDEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: He says, I thank God because everyone is benefiting from this – well, not everyone. There’s now a water shortage in Necocli, while businesses that depend on tourism are going broke. At her beachside fish restaurant, Felicia Ospino is frying sea bass for a few customers. Normally full at lunchtime, the place is nearly empty.

FELICIA OSPINO: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: She complains that the migrants and the growing piles of trash on the beach have scared away tourists. Some town officials predict that President Biden’s efforts to deport newly arrived Haitians from the U.S. will halt the flow of migrants passing through Necocli. But for now, their numbers keep growing.

NOEL: (Speaking Spanish, laughter).

OTIS: In fact, there are so many that Bruno Noel, the migrant who has been stranded here for two weeks, laughs and says he sometimes feels like he’s back in Haiti.

For NPR News, I’m John Otis in Necocli, Colombia.

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