Colombia will begin deporting thousands of undocumented migrants — including an estimated 1,273 Cubans — who have been stranded in the country after Panama shut its southern border in June, authorities confirmed Wednesday.
Colombian Migration Director Christian Kruger is asking the migrants, many of whom are stranded in the northern town of Turbo, to turn themselves in for voluntary deportation. Otherwise, they will be sought out and expelled, he said.
He said air force and police aircraft were standing by to take them back to Cuba or Ecuador — the last point of entry for many.
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Cuban migrants had been asking authorities for an airlift to Mexico — like Costa Rica and Panama have previously done — so they could make their way to the United States.
But Kruger said that Mexico would not allow the flight, that illegal migration constituted human trafficking and an airlift might spark an even greater influx.
“In neighboring countries like Ecuador, Brazil and Guyana there are more than 50,000 irregular migrants that might demand the same treatment,” he said.
The decision came after the government held an emergency meeting late Tuesday that included President Juan Manuel Santos. Authorities also said they’re reinforcing the southwestern border with Ecuador, where many of the migrants were crossing, and would begin prosecuting those who knowingly provide transportation and housing to undocumented migrants.
The focus of much of the attention has been a warehouse in Turbo where more than 800 Cubans are thought to be staying. Kruger said that authorities were seeking the legal right to enter the building and that they planned to prosecute the owner.
Last week, the office of the Ombudsmen said it had counted 1,273 Cubans in the vicinity of the port city, although a spokesman for the migration officials have also put that number at 950.
The drama is generating high-level attention. On Wednesday, former President Alvaro Uribe asked authorities to let the Cubans stay here, or be allowed to travel to countries that would protect their human rights. Dozens of Miami-based Cuban artists also sent Santos an open letter asking that their countrymen be allowed to stay.
On Wednesday, Kruger told RCN radio that none of the Cubans had asked for asylum.
“They have no interest in staying here,” he said. “We’re simply a tool. . . . What they’re interested in is reaching [the United States].”
This Andean nation is just the latest country to deal with the Cuban migration crisis. In November, Nicaragua closed its borders to Cubans, creating a backlog of islanders in neighboring Costa Rica. That country ultimately shut its border to new arrivals in May, creating swelling numbers in Panama. In June, Panama shut down its southern border, forcing Colombia to address the issue.
Once on U.S. soil, Cubans are considered refugees and have access to a series of benefits. Latin American leaders have blamed those policies, enshrined in the Cuban Adjustment Act, for the influx.
“Colombia isn’t the cause or the origin of this situation,” Kruger told RCN. “Colombia is being affected by the migratory policies of the destination country [the United States] and neighboring countries that allow them to enter and begin their journey.”