Transit of migrants through the Darien Gap resumes as Colombian boat companies end work stoppage

FILE - Migrants gather in Necocli, Colombia, a stopping point for migrants taking boats to Acandi which leads to the Darien Gap, Oct. 13, 2022. The flow of thousands of migrants daily through the migratory highway, the Darien Gap, has been cut off following the Feb. 26, 2024 capture in Necoclí of some boat captains who had been ferrying the migrants to the starting point of their jungle trek. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara, File)

FILE – Migrants gather in Necocli, Colombia, a stopping point for migrants taking boats to Acandi which leads to the Darien Gap, Oct. 13, 2022. The flow of thousands of migrants daily through the migratory highway, the Darien Gap, has been cut off following the Feb. 26, 2024 capture in Necoclí of some boat captains who had been ferrying the migrants to the starting point of their jungle trek. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara, File)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia (AP) — Migrants bound for the U.S. are once again crossing the Darien Gap in large numbers, officials in Colombia said on Monday, after being stranded for much of last week in a small town along the country’s Caribbean coast due to a work stoppage by local boat captains.

Johann Wachter Espitia, deputy mayor of Necoclí, said that 3,000 migrants have left the town since Friday on boats headed towards the Darien jungle, with another 400 people waiting and sleeping in tents, as they gather money to pay for their tickets.

From Necoclí migrants board boats that take them to two remote villages, where the treacherous trails that cross the Darien Gap begin.

The dense and roadless rainforest divides South America from Central America and in recent years it has become a common, yet perilous route for hundreds of thousands of South Americans, Asians and Africans headed to the United States.

From Monday to Thursday of last week transit across the Darien dwindled as boat companies in Necoclí went on strike over the arrest of two of their boat captains by Colombia’s navy.

The captains had been intercepted after they left Necoclí in two boats carrying around 150 migrants and were accused by authorities of transporting migrants in unsafe conditions, and of contributing to human trafficking.

The two companies operating boat services from Necoclí towards the Darien Gap stopped their services in protest for four days. They resumed activities on Friday after holding several meetings with municipal and national government officials, who were concerned over the large numbers of migrants stranded in the small town. According to Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman, around 8,000 migrants were stranded in Necoclí by Thursday, generating the potential for a public health crisis.

According to Wachter Espitia, the companies agreed to a request that migrants boarding their boats register on a government app. More details on the conditions for transporting migrants will be discussed in another meeting later this week, he said.

Colombia has long allowed migrants from different nations to transit through its territory without visas.

But the South American nation has come under increasing pressure from U.S. officials to stem the flow of migrants headed north, as record numbers of people seek asylum at the U.S. border.

Last year 520,000 people crossed the Darien Gap on foot, according to authorities in Panama, where most migrants register with officials in villages on the northern side of the jungle before they continue their journey to the United States.

Panama’s Security Minister Juan Pino said Monday that the number of migrants crossing the Darien could increase this year, with more than 73,000 crossings registered in the first two months of 2024, a 52% increase from the same period last year. Most of those crossings this year have been Venezuelans escaping their nation’s economic crisis, followed by migrants from Haiti, China and Ecuador.

Despite its growing popularity, the Darien Gap continues to be a dangerous route where migrants have drowned while crossing swollen rivers and are exposed to robberies, sexual violence and tropical diseases.

On Friday Doctors Without Borders said it had treated 233 victims of sexual violence at its health posts in the Darien Gap during the first two months of this year.

In a report published last year, Human Rights Watch said the Colombian side of the Darien is run by the Gulf Clan, a drug trafficking group that is taking a hefty cut from the fees that migrants must pay to guides and porters that lead them to the border with Panama.

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