MSF forced to suspend medical activities in Panama

As one of the few organizations working in southern Panama, this will be devastating for migrants exiting the treacherous Darién Gap, including many victims of sexual violence. 

An MSF staff member treats a migrant who crossed the Darién Gap.

MSF medical staff examines a child. From January to October 2023, MSF provided 51,500 medical and nursing consultations in Darién, Panama. | Panama 2023 © Juan Carlos Tomasi/MSF

On Monday March 4, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was ordered by Panamanian authorities to stop all medical activities for migrants arriving in the south of the country after crossing the dangerous Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama. MSF has since suspended all activities in the area. The Panamanian authorities allege that MSF does not currently have a collaboration agreement in place with the Ministry of Health, however MSF has tried unsuccessfully to renew the agreement since October 2023.

We are extremely concerned about the consequences that the suspension of our activities will have on people on the move through the Darién Gap—a treacherous forest region and the only land route for people migrating north. MSF teams provide medical and psychological health care to an average of 5,000 people per month at the San Vicente and Lajas Blancas migrant reception centers in southern Panama. 

A focus of our activities is care for survivors of sexual violence. During 2023, we provided comprehensive medical care to 676 people who experienced sexual violence along this section of the migration route. This year, MSF has witnessed an increase in survivors seeking care after experiencing brutal attacks and sexual assault while crossing the Darién Gap. In January, our teams provided care to 120 people for sexual violence. In just one week in February, MSF teams treated 113 people—including nine children—after they were sexually assaulted by armed groups operating in the Darién. 

Because of the clear health needs of people exiting the Darién Gap—which have increased significantly over the last three years—MSF hopes to be able to resume medical care in San Vicente and Lajas Blancas as soon as possible. The suspension also coincides with an expected increase in the number of migrants crossing into Panama this week after boat transports departing Colombia resumed following several days of suspension.   

In 2023, our teams in Panama provided 59,877 medical consultations (35 percent were patients under 15 years of age and 53 percent were women and girls), 2,978 mental health consultations, and performed 24,762 first aid consultations to people exiting the Darién Gap. 

MSF assists people at different points along the migration route between South America, Central America, Mexico, and the United States. We provide free and confidential support to people on the move.