About 1,000 Cubans stranded in northern Colombia, intent on reaching the United States, have opted to cross into Panama in the perilous Darien Gap jungle region rather than risk deportation.
The government said Monday that only 350 remain. They have been stranded since May in miserable conditions in the steamy town of Turbo near the Panamanian border.
William González, the government ombudsman for the region, said 80 of them are staying at a makeshift shelter where sanitary conditions are poor.
Fourteen Cubans who accepted voluntary repatriation were flown to Cuba on Saturday on a Colombian military plane.
Cubans who fear that detente with Havana will lead the U.S. government to end the preferential immigration treatment that Cubans now get when reaching U.S. soil have been heading by the thousands for North America.
But they've been stymied by a crackdown on migration by Central and South American nations that have their borders to the Cubans. More than 7,000 Cubans were stuck in Costa Rica for weeks earlier this year when Nicaragua closed its border to them. They were eventually airlifted to Mexico and El Salvador to continue their journey. Thousands of others took shelter in Panama before it tightened its border with Colombia.
The migrants stranded in Turbo had requested safe passage to Mexico, but its government turned them down.
Colombia's migration office said in a statement Monday that "to permit the passage of irregular migrants to other countries is to open the door to criminals dedicated to human trafficking; this would also multiply the number of irregular migrants, given our strategic geographical position for networks dedicated to migrant trafficking."
The government says it has deported more than 5,500 such migrants since May, mostly Cubans and Haitians.
The migration office said none of the Cubans in Turbo had sought asylum in Colombia. But González, the ombudsman, said one family had approached him with the request and the case was being considered.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.