Stranded migrants low on money in tiny Colombian port town

Every year, thousands of migrants descend on the little coastal town of Necocli in northern Colombia, most with dreams of one day reaching the United States.

That influx dried up in 2020 due to Covid-19 restrictions and border closures  -- but Necocli was overwhelmed soon after Colombia opened its frontiers in May.

The town of 45,000 has been flooded with some 10,000 migrants waiting for a route out -- and rapidly running out of money.

Haitian Remi Wilford arrived in Necocli from Chile, where he had saved up $1,200 over the last four years working as a baker.

"I've only got $150 left ... it's going to be almost impossible to go any further," he said.

He took two weeks to arrive and has been waiting another two weeks to board a boat that will take him to the border with Panama.

There are 12 daily boat trips across the 60-kilometer wide Gulf of Uraba from Necocli to the border town of Capurgana.

It is in Capurgana where migrants begin the perilous journey through the ominous Darian Gap, a thick jungle infested with deadly snakes and murderous drug traffickers.

The only company in Necocli offering boat crossings simply cannot match demand, forcing migrants to spend their precious savings on food and lodging while waiting to move on.

In South America "you work for pesos and pay in dollars" complained Nelson Courcelle, another Haitian, who is paying $25 a night for accommodation with his partner and seven-month-old baby.

The US dollar is currently trading at record highs against the Colombian peso, hitting migrants even harder in the pocket.

Wilford, 34, paid $105 to enter Colombia illegally from Ecuador, another $200 for a four-day bus ride to Necocli, and more still to pay police bribes, he told AFP.

- Survival kit -

When Colombia started reopening its borders it created a surge in migrant arrivals that had largely been on hold during the 2020 coronavirus lockdowns and border closures.

But while authorities grapple with water shortages produced by the surge in demand and fear a health crisis -- Colombia is experiencing one of the world's highest Covid-19 death rates -- locals have seized on the business opportunity.

The pandemic emptied the region's paradisical beaches of tourists, but the arrival of migrants has boosted the ailing local economy.

"People say there's a problem here, that Necocli is in chaos. No! The people are working," said Juan Pablo Guevara, 34, who has seen his earnings increase tenfold by renting out a room to migrants.

Rooms go for $10 a night per person, which is "very expensive" according to Wilford, who shares a room with four other people.

Locals are also selling survival kits for $20 that include a tent, a machete and a liquid they claim scares away snakes.

"We're not going to stay here, we just want to pass through without harming the country," Wilford said, adding that some friends are waiting for him in the United States.

Necocli's beach now vibrates to the sound of creole music and tales of frustration and aspiration.

- Danger everywhere -

Many of the migrants come from Haiti and Cuba, nations whose economies have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.

Haiti is also in turmoil following the assassination of President Jovenel Moise last month in a mysterious plot involving Colombian mercenaries allegedly in the pay of local politicians.

Haiti is a "fake democracy," Wilford said.

"How will I live without a president, with a police force that is of no use?" Courcelle asked.

Like many of the migrants that initially head to Chile or Brazil, they say their visas were not renewed so they started to move northwards in search of "a decent life."

Crossing the Darian Gap is just one of many dangers.

This region of Colombia has been wracked by more than half a century of armed conflict between leftist guerrillas, drug-traffickers and right-wing paramilitaries.

It is also the fiefdom of the notorious Clan del Golfo cartel.

Topics: Colombia , Migrants , port town
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