Colombian authorities will deport Cuban migrants stranded in the town of Turbo, perhaps to the country from where they arrived, according to Juan Manuel Caicedo Cardona, chief spokesman for the country's Immigration Department.
“We are working on an announcement, waiting for a court order to go into the warehouse where the Cubans are staying,” Caicedo said. “We will start by verifying the status of each of the people there and then start the deportation process.”
There are about 950 Cubans in Turbo near the border with Panama, the next step on their trek north to the United States, Caicedo said. The number is much lower than the 2,000 reported by government ombudsmen and the 1,350 mentioned by the mayor of Turbo in an interview.
“This is an administrative process, based on the law. The people could face legal charges,” he said. “Depending on the results of the process, we will determine whether they will be sent to Cuba or to the other countries from where they arrived.”
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If they refuse to be deported, Caicedo added, Colombian authorities might use force to remove them. “These processes are backed by the police and the army. The goal is to bring their status in line with the law, but the law must be obeyed,” he said.
Caicedo denied allegations that Colombia is pushing the Cuban migrants to hire people smugglers and continue their trip north. “The idea is that these people being processed do not take risks. We want to maintain an orderly and safe migration that does not expose people to risks. We don’t want people to go into the jungle, and we are not pushing them” to reach Panama, he said.
According to Turbo Mayor Alejandro Abuchar: “If the migrants don't decide to continue on their way to the border, migration officials and [Colombian] President [Juan Manuel] Santos most likely will come after them and deport them.”
Abuchar recently declared a “state of public calamity” for the municipality but denied that it was due to national government pressure to do so.
“The municipality is overcrowded. That could lead to serious budget problems, diseases, or security problems,” he said. “We are talking about thousands of people who need to bathe, eat and go to the bathroom. There are pregnant women and children. There’s a lot of them.”
“Immigration is planning only to go into the Cubans’ shelter, but many of them are not in the shelter. They are staying in rented homes or in camping tents. What they are talking about is deporting the ones they have registered,” said the mayor.
Luis Gonzalez, a Cuban migrant in Turbo who arrived from Ecuador, said he would hide to avoid being deported. “I don’t want to return to Cuba. Ecuador did the same thing to us. They have me between a rock and a hard place.”
Other Cuban migrants said the situation in the shelter is tense.
Andy Sanchez said Cubans are expecting immigration authorities to burst into the shelter but he said that they are not going back to Cuba. “That is not an option for us.”
Sources told el Nuevo Herald that several dozen Cubans already have left Turbo to walk across the jungle and into Panama.
Government ombudsman William González de la Hoz said he was “depressed” by the planned deportations. “This is like a bucket of cold water. If this is a decision taken by the president, it kills anything that I can try to do,” he said.
Santos on Wednesday confirmed that the Cuban migrants stranded in Turbo would be deported in a process handled by the Foreign Ministry and immigration authorities.
“We have to change the law to more effectively control these types of migrants, who create problems for the mayors of the cities where they gather,” Santos said in a statement.