Migration through Panama resumes after pandemic lockdown

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Haitian migrants cross the Tuquesa river after a trip on foot through the jungle to Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. After nearly a year stalled in migrant camps at the edge of the jungle, hundreds of migrants have begun to move across Panama and into neighboring Costa Rica in recent weeks. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

SAN VICENTE – After nearly a year stalled in migrant camps at the edge of the jungle, hundreds of migrants have begun to move across Panama and into neighboring Costa Rica in recent weeks.

Panama closed its borders last March to try to slow the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 2,000 migrants suddenly found their years-long journey toward the United States suspended.

But on Jan. 29, Panama announced it was reopening its land borders, setting off a surge of migration through the dense jungle covering the Colombia-Panama border.

On Wednesday afternoon, more than 50 migrants trudged out of the dense Darien jungle into the village of Bajo Chiquito, the first community they encountered after days of walking. Pregnant women, adults carrying babies in their arms and others with bags of clothing balanced atop their heads forded a river and then scrambled up the bank to waiting border police.

They were told to line up to register their entry into Panama. No measures — temperature checks or social distancing — against coronavirus infection were on display. Only one man carrying his daughter wore a mask.

Kerline Mervilier, a 29-year-old from Haiti, made it into the line and collapsed complaining of pain in her legs. She had traveled with boyfriend Isaac Cadichon from Brazil. She left Haiti for Brazil in December 2019, but after losing her job in a beauty salon there decided to migrate again.

They started to walk into the jungle in Colombia on Friday, emerging in Panama five days later. They were among 287 migrants who entered Panama Wednesday, according to border police.

“I hope to get to a destination where I can find work,” Mervilier said, holding her passport and that of her boyfriend in her hands. Her mother lives in New Jersey. “My country is a tragedy and forces us to look for a new life. We had to climb mountains. They assaulted me and stole $160 while I walked.”