Panama: Providing medical and mental health care for migrants making the dangerous crossing from Colombia

Four exhausted men sit on a tree trunk to rest

Panama 2021 © Marcos Tamariz/MSF

PANAMA CITY/BARCELONA/NEW YORK JUNE 9, 2021The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has begun providing medical and mental health services in southern Panama following a surge in migrants crossing from Colombia through the Darién Gap. After hearing from these patients about the extreme violence experienced along the route, MSF calls on the Panamanian and Colombian authorities to create safe routes to protect people in transit.

“There is enormous suffering among our patients because of the journeys they are having to make,” said Raúl López, MSF project coordinator. “Many of them have been on the road for weeks or months and crossing the Darién Gap is hard because of the long, difficult journey. Added to that, we have heard terrible tales about the violence, robberies, sexual assaults, and attacks people have faced. We demand that the Colombian and Panamanian authorities guarantee protection for people in transit through their countries.”

In May 2021, MSF began activities in Bajo Chiquito, the first town of arrival for migrants reaching Panama, and in the San Vicente and Lajas Blancas migrant reception centers, after an increase in the number of migrants arriving. The MSF team includes doctors, nurses, psychologists, and logisticians. In May, MSF provided 3,390 medical consultations and an average of five individual and five group mental health consultations per day. As well as providing medical and mental health services, MSF is also helping to improve the local health infrastructure.

“It's a really tough route, both in its geography and its duration,” said López. “The walk can take between five and 10 days, depending on whether it's the dry or rainy season. We've been told about instances of violence and robberies, and a lack of food and water. Our patients have seen other migrants who have not been able to carry on due to exhaustion or who have drowned in the rising rivers. The health issues that we see the most are related to skin infections and lacerations in the limbs, as well as dehydration and diarrhea. Children are often suffering from fever, diarrhea, and malnutrition. One of the issues that worries us the most is that many of the women we help have told us that they have been sexually assaulted en route."

During the first 15 days of medical assistance in Bajo Chiquito, MSF treated 12 women who had been sexually assaulted in the previous three days. “On the first day of our project, we had five cases. Our teams, who have years of experience [working along] the Mexico migration route had never seen such a large number of cases in a single day.”

In recent months, Panama has reported an increase in migrants arriving from Colombia through the Darién Gap. Between January and May, more than 15,000 migrants traveled this route into Panama. In the month of May, 5,303 migrants registered their entry, according to the Panamanian National Migration Service. Many of those arriving are from Haiti and Cuba, but there are also people from West and Central Africa—including Burkina Faso and Democratic Republic of Congo—Pakistan, and Yemen. Although most are adults, there are also families with children and many pregnant women.

MSF has also spoken to migrants in shelters in Mexico who made the dangerous crossing from Colombia to Panama. Ana*, 45, traveled from Cuba. After two years of traveling through South America, she crossed the border between Colombia and Panama. "We went through a small path and suddenly we saw people with guns,” said Ana. “Some [women] were raped in front of everybody, without us being able to do anything. Even me too... they abused me too. They killed people, innocent people, in front of you, bleeding to death in front of you, without being able to do anything, without being able to help."

“At MSF, we have been working with people in transit for many years,” said López. “We have witnessed how borders, walls, and administrative barriers negatively impact migrants and how they are exposed to trafficking networks that violate and exploit them. Migrants should be able to transit between Colombia and Panama by safe routes established by the authorities, knowing that they will not be assaulted, beaten, robbed or harassed, and that they will not risk their lives or those of their loved ones on the way. No one should face what our patients go through just for trying to migrate. Migration is not a crime.”

In Latin America, MSF has been working with migrant populations in Mexico since 2012. MSF is also working with people in transit in Honduras, Guatemala, Venezuela, and Colombia. In Panama, MSF collaborates with different public institutions, the Ministry of Health, and other international organizations to carry out its work.

*Name has been changed.