A strike by ferry companies in two northern Colombian towns has halted migrant flows through a treacherous border crossing to Panama that has become a vital stage of the migration trail to the US.
About 3,000 migrants are held up in Necoclí and Turbo waiting for the restart of ferry services to the western side of the Gulf of Urabá, from where they embark on a land route through the Darién Gap, a lawless tract of inhospitable jungle between Colombia and Panama.
“There’s no way across so all the migrants are stuck,” said a community leader in Necoclí who asked not to be named. “The strike has been going on for five days and is indefinite.”
The Darién Gap route has grown in popularity with migrants attempting to reach the US. Panama said 500,000 migrants crossed last year, twice the number a year earlier, and almost four times the 130,000 who crossed in 2021. But migrants are often prey to violent criminals who operate in a region with limited state presence.
The strike comes after the Colombian navy last week seized two boats carrying a total of 151 migrants and arrested their captains. Authorities said the companies had not verified the migratory status of their passengers.
In response, a group of seven ferry companies announced they would not run migrants across the gulf, and would only offer services to tourists and residents of the region.
The arrests mark an apparent change in tact from the Colombian government, which has been pressured by Washington to stem the flow of migrants through the Darién Gap. Previously, Bogotá had taken a permissive approach to multimillion-dollar smuggling networks that operate in the Darién and the Gulf of Urabá.
Migration is seen as a potential weakness for US President Joe Biden. Former president Donald Trump, his likely Republican rival in November’s election, has adopted a hardline stance on immigration. Both men are visiting Texas, the southern state which has a long border with Mexico, on Thursday.
In an effort to process applications far from the US border and deter illegal immigration, the Biden administration has opened so-called safe mobility offices in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Guatemala.
The Darién Gap is one of the world’s most treacherous border crossings. With no road through the 60-mile stretch, the topography is unforgiving, with migrants often falling to their deaths while navigating mountain passes on the days-long trek.
The International Organization for Migration reports that 379 migrants have died or gone missing attempting to cross the Darién Gap since 2015, with about half of those attributed to drowning.
Rapes, murders and robberies of migrants were also commonplace, said human rights groups.
Colombia’s Clan del Golfo, a powerful drug-trafficking organisation, operates profitable routes through the region. Panamanian authorities estimate that smuggling groups in the Darién Gap, where migrants are charged hundreds of dollars for passage, made about $820mn last year.
Migrants from Venezuela, Ecuador and Haiti, which face economic or security crises, make up the largest nationalities, though migrants from as far afield as China, Bangladesh and Angola also make the journey.
With hundreds of migrants now camped on the streets of Necoclí, and more arriving each day, officials have warned about the risk of a humanitarian crisis developing in the region.
“As a municipality, we’re calling for opportune decisions to be taken to avoid a build-up of people that could cause public order problems,” Johann Wachter Espitia, the government secretary for Necoclí, said in a video posted on social media on Tuesday.