Despair in a migrant camp in Panama

Desperation is palpable in La Penita, Panama’s main camp where 1,500 migrants are crowded, stranded in the middle of their journey to Mexico and the United States by the COVID-19 epidemic.

They are from Haiti, Cuba, but also from Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Congo and Cameroon.

The remains of burnt tents bear witness to the recent riot in the camp in this village of 200 people in an indigenous area of ​​the Darien jungle, near the border with Colombia.

The situation remains tense after the demonstration of migrants who demand to be able to continue their journey despite the closure of borders in Central America due to the health crisis.

” It is not going well “

“For us, things are going very badly here. We’ve been here doing nothing for seven months. I don’t want to live in Panama. I want to go to Costa Rica and continue my journey to Mexico, ”proclaims Eveline Louima, a Haitian migrant.

Many children, including babies, pregnant women, are in the camp. The lucky ones found a place in overcrowded tents. The rest have to sleep outside, in torrential downpours and the humidity of the tropical rainy season.

Migrants cook and wash in the open air. Almost no one uses masks despite the pandemic and overcrowding in the camp.

“This is not a place for human beings,” laments Thomas Saint Louis, a Haitian, who points to the thickets that serve as toilets. “These are bad living conditions, come and see, help us,” he pleaded with AFP journalists.

“We have been sleeping on the floor for almost five months, exposed to rain, sun and heat. We have a one and a half month old baby girl, and she has nothing, ”says Paul, a Cameroonian.

Exceeded population

“The situation is a bit tense,” admits the director of the National Border Service, Oriel Ortega.

On August 1, a group of migrants set fire to tents belonging to Unicef, the Red Cross and the Panamanian Ministry of Health, where medical supplies and humanitarian aid were stored, he said.

Seven cars were also set on fire, he adds, adding that 12 Haitian migrants were arrested.

The unrest has overtaken the local population: “We must help us. Either (the authorities) send them out, or we’ll send them out ourselves. We can’t take it any longer, ”warns Yasmin Valencia, a resident of La Penita.

“We cannot go out to work, we cannot sleep well: we are on the lookout whenever there is even a small stone falling on our roof,” said another villager, Cristino Olea.

Closed border

Last year, around 24,000 migrants faced the dangers of the Darien jungle, according to official statistics.

Since the start of the year, more than 4,000 have taken this perilous path and 2,500 of them have been stranded. The four camps set up by the government of Panama were quickly overwhelmed.

Before the pandemic, around 100 migrants could cross from Panama to Costa Rica every day, but the border is now closed.

“The migrants, seeing that they cannot continue their journey, are plagued by fear, despair and anguish,” said Daniel Charles, the lawyer who defends Haitians arrested during the unrest.

To quell troublemakers, the Panamanian government has announced that it will deport violent migrants to their countries of origin. “About 280 people” will thus be expelled, warns the director of the National Migration Service, Samira Gozaine.

“We understand the situation of these migrants (…) however, we cannot allow these hostile acts”, insists the Panamanian Minister of the Interior, Juan Pino.

“The situation is a bit complicated” because of the border closures, but “we are working as mediators between the two parties to avoid violence,” explains Maribel Pena, People’s Defender for the Darién.

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