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Doctors Without Borders alarms insufficient response to the rising migrant influx in Darien jungle

Incidents of sexual violence spike for those crossing Panama’s Darién Gap

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  • The number of people crossing the Darién Gap, Panama, reporting having been subjected to sexual violence on their journey has spiked.
  • In recent months, MSF teams have treated an increasing number of people – including children – who have been raped.
  • MSF urges the Panama and Colombian authorities to ensure an effective security presence in the jungle to end the violence.

Bogota - People crossing the Darién Gap – a 100 kilometre stretch of wilderness straddling the borders of Colombia and Panama – have described being subjected to kidnappings and group rapes in tents set up for that purpose in the mountainous rainforest and swampland. This year, teams from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have treated 397 survivors of sexual violence, many of them children, after they succeeded in reaching Panama.  

“How can you survive five rapes?,” asks a Venezuelan migrant.Name not used to protect identity. “We were crossing the jungle looking for a better future, not for our lives to end. A snake does not end your life; your life is ended by the men inside the jungle who rape and kill.”  

The migrant, a woman, was forced by the economic conditions in her country to cross the Darién, a route that is described as one of the most dangerous in the world. She witnessed repeated episodes of sexual violence on her journey.

She is one of nearly 460,000 migrants who have crossed the Darién Gap so far this year on their journey north towards the United States. During the journey, they are exposed to all kinds of risks, from falling down cliffs and drowning in rivers to robbery, kidnapping and rape. 

We understand there are rivers, animals and snakes, but most harmful are the men inside the jungle. They are raping us and ending our lives. Venezuelan woman who crossed the Darién Gap

The woman tells how the entire group with whom she was travelling was kidnapped by armed men and subjected to violence.

“They beat me on my legs with a bat, because those of us who had no money were beaten,” she says. “Those who said they didn’t have any money, but when searched were found to have some, were hurt even more.”

“They said, ‘Oh yes, she has some money’, and they raped them. I saw many people raped,” the woman continues. “I saw them left naked and beaten. One, two or three of them grab you and rape you, and then the next one comes and rapes you again, and if you scream, they beat you.”  

Sexual violence in the Darién Gap is increasing, according to the numbers of survivors seeking assistance from MSF in Panama. In October alone, MSF teams assisted 107 people; this included one week when 59 people sought care from MSF – which equates to one event of sexual violence occurring every three hours. Three of the rape survivors were children aged 11, 12 and 16.   

Shocking as these statistics are, they are likely to be a significant underestimate, as sexual violence often goes underreported due to stigma and fear.

“Not all people who experience sexual violence receive timely attention, due to the stigma against victims surrounding this form of violence, threats from perpetrators, forms of sexual violence not recognised as such, and the fact that people do not feel safe asking for help,” says Carmenza Gálvez, MSF medical coordinator. “In addition, there is the fear that reporting the crimes against them may delay their journey north.”

Hundreds of migrants arrive at reception centres after travelling through Darien jungle
Dr Priscilla Acevedo cares for a mother and her son in the MSF tent which provides care to people who have just arrived after crossing the Darién Gap. Lajas Blancas, Panama, August 2023.
Natalia Romero Peñuela/MSF

MSF patients have told our teams that armed men are kidnapping groups of migrants and stealing their money, telling them that is the cost for passing through the Darien Gap. Patients have described how sexual violence, ranging from unwanted touching to rape, occurs in front of other migrants or in tents set up for that purpose. Ninety-five per cent of the victims of sexual violence treated by MSF were female. Those who tried to defend the victims were themselves subjected to violence and in some cases killed.

“Some young men were also beaten and thrown onto the ground for trying to defend the women,” says the Venezuelan woman. “They killed a boy in front of us with a shot to the head.”

The woman issues a plea: “We only ask that there are no more deaths or rapes. It is not fair that they do this to us. We are warrior women for our children. We understand there are rivers, animals and snakes, but most harmful are the men inside the jungle. They are raping us and ending our lives.” 

Not all people who experience sexual violence receive timely attention, due to the stigma against victims surrounding this form of violence, threats from perpetrators. Carmenza Gálvez, MSF medical coordinator

MSF staff in Panama treating the survivors of sexual violence point to the serious medical and psychological repercussions.

“Sexual violence has consequences for people’s physical and psychological health, such as sexually transmitted infections that can affect women’s fertility if not treated in time,” says Gálvez. “It can expose them to HIV infection, with the consequent risk of developing AIDS and infecting others.”

“It can cause physical trauma, unwanted pregnancies, social isolation, feelings of guilt, recurrent thoughts about the events experienced, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, insomnia and the risk of substance abuse,” continues Gálvez. “It increases the risk of new events of sexual violence.”  

MSF is calling on the Panama and Colombia governments to ensure an effective presence in the Darién Gap to end the many risks to which migrants are exposed, including sexual violence.

MSF also calls on the Panama government to ensure that survivors of sexual violence can access medical care within 72 hours to avoid unwanted pregnancies, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

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Press Release 7 March 2024