A Sanctuary For Cuban Migrants On Their Way To The United States / 14ymedio, Mario Penton

The director of Caritas Panama, Deacon Victor Berrío, speaks to Cubans. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Campos, Miami, 5 January 2017 — Dozens of Cubans take refuge every week in the shelter set up by the social ministry of Caritas in Panama to continue their journey to the United States. Although currently there are no bottlenecks in Central America and the flow of migrants remains constant and away from the cameras, the situation is far from solved and will probably get worse, explains Deacon Victor Luis Berrio, executive secretary for Caritas Panama.

“On the last night of the year we had about 140 migrants. Every day 20 or 30 arrive, but as they come they go,” explains Berrio.

According to statistics provided to 14ymedio by the National Immigration Service, in Panama, for all of 2016 more than 750 foreigners were returned to their countries of origin. Of these, only 5 were Cubans. The majority of those arriving in Panama do so from Colombia, which is used as a springboard by those who travel without a visa from Cuba to Guyana and the Lesser Antilles.

For all of 2016, more than 750 foreigners were returned to their countries of origin. Of these only 5 were Cuban

“The border crossing are going well,” explains Berrio, based on what migrants who are in communication with his institution have told him.

“Some spend months here. In gratitude, they then write to tell us how they are doing in the United States once they reach their destination,” he adds.

Yuniel Ramos is a 31-year-old Cuban from Alamar, in eastern Havana. He has been at the shelter for five days and, although he has tried twice to cross Costa Rica to continue his trip to the United States, he has been captured by law enforcement agents, who return him to the Panamanian border.

“Here they give us food, cleanliness and welcome us until we can continue the journey,” explains Ramos, who learned of the existence of the Caritas hostel through the messages of other migrants on Facebook.

“The truth is that we cannot complain because the police treated us very well in Panama and Costa Rica. They even offered us food when we crossed the jungle from Colombia. The indigenous communities helped us cross the Darien Gap, but we have to pay them,” explains the migrant.

“We arrive exhausted from crossing the jungle. This place is a great help. Many people have been waiting for a miracle from God to continue their journey, because they have no money,” he says.

Ramos hopes his relatives in the United States can send him money to continue his trip.

“They want to avoid people having to go with the coyotes, but they force them by keeping them from passing through. We just hope for a miracle that will allow us to continue on the way to the United States.”

The Caritas shelter arose as an initiative to alleviate the humanitarian crisis sparked by the presence of thousands of Cubans stranded in Panama after the closing of the border with Nicaragua at the end of 2015.

“We had to set up dormitories where we used to have offices before. The important thing is that people have a safe place to sleep and a plate of food to put in their mouths,” says Deacon Berrio.

“After the airlift Cubans have continued to arrive; since August we have hosted more than 1,500, which obviously requires considerable expenditure”

Two large groups of Cubans were transferred thanks to an airlift that the Government of Panama agreed to with Mexico. In total some 5,000 Cubans were evacuated. But the problem did not end.

“After the airlift Cubans have continued to arrive; since August we have hosted more than 1,500, which obviously requires considerable expenditure,” he explains.

Thanks to the solidarity of organizations in the United States, Panamanian institutions and Cubans resident in that country, they have managed to continue aid for the migrants, valued at more than 120,000 dollars.

The deacon says he has had no communication with the Cuban Church during the crisis.

“We have seen five Cuban-Panamanians born in this shelter. There is no other institution like this in Panama,” he says proudly.