PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Colombia and Panama's foreign ministers said on Friday they will work together to process and organize thousands of migrants stranded for long periods in northern Colombia as they make their way northward and request support for the efforts from destination countries like the United States and Canada.
Some 10,000 migrants - most of them Haitian but also from Cuba and various African countries - are stuck in Necocli, in Colombia's Antioquia province, waiting for scarce boat transport toward Panama's dangerous Darien Gap region, which many will cross on foot.
Many migrants were held back by COVID-19 border closures and have recently overwhelmed re-opened crossing points.
"Today we have agreed to a work session on Monday, Aug. 9 at an operational level," said Colombia's vice-president and foreign minister Marta Lucia Ramirez, after meeting with her Panamanian counterpart in Meteti, Panama.
The meeting will "define how we are going to regularize a contingent, a daily quantity of people who preferably would move through one single site, have one single arrival point in Panama and move on transport that is organized and controlled by Colombian authorities," she said.
Organizing the migrants and improved planning for transport and travel routes will help protect them from criminals, drowning risks and the dangers of the jungle in the Darien Gap, she said, adding human trafficking often goes hand-in-hand with drug smuggling.
"Hopefully we can also have biometric controls, health controls, that's why it's so important to be able to count on international cooperation," Ramirez said.
Destination countries the United States and Canada, as well as transit countries like Peru, Chile, Costa Rica and Ecuador will be invited to future meetings, Ramirez said.
"Panama and Colombia want to create a common front to attend (to the migrants)," said the Central American country's foreign minister Erika Mouynes. "Involving the international community and all the actors is key to being able to resolve this in a comprehensive way."
The Necocli region typically sees 30,000 migrants pass through annually. Just 4,000 people transited through in 2020, while 25,000 migrants have transited so far this year, according to Colombia's migration agency.
(Reporting by Eli Moreno in Panama City; writing by Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota; Editing by David Gregorio)