Safe routes urgently needed for thousands of migrants crossing the Darién Gap

Panamanian and Colombian governments must protect migrants from violence

Bajo Chiquito

Panama 2021 © Sara de la Rubia/MSF

Migrants attempting to cross the dangerous Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama continue to endure extreme violence at the hands of criminal gangs, said the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today, calling for safe migration routes between the two countries and for regional governments to provide protection from violence for migrants along the entire route.

“There is an enormous amount of violence,” said Guillermo Gironés, MSF medical coordinator in Panama. “You don't expect the associated violence, the brutality encountered on the way, including both sexual [violence] and general violence that occurs during robberies.”

MSF has been treating people arriving in Panama since April, caring for their physical injuries and providing counseling for the psychological trauma of surviving this migration and witnessing the death or injury of travel companions, who are swept away by rising rivers or who succumb to the perilous terrain of the jungle.

People who take this dangerous route include those who have been forced to flee Haiti or other countries where they were residing because of violence or economic crises fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The vast majority of migrants we see are Haitian families who have lived for the last few years in Brazil or Chile,” said Owen Breuil MSF project coordinator in Panama. “Many of them lost their livelihoods due to the pandemic and have been forced to move north in search of opportunities.” But our teams also see people from other countries, including Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Policies that criminalize migrants have also pushed people to flee. “They have no other alternative than to cross the border between Colombia and Panama,” said Breuil. “They are forced to [take] the most dangerous route, because they cannot pay for other, [safer] paths.”

Of the more than 30,000 medical consultations MSF has provided to people who have arrived in Bajo Chiquito—where MSF collaborates with the Ministry of Health—and in the migrant reception centers of Lajas Blancas and San Vicente, approximately 10,000 were for children or adolescents and 1,000 for pregnant women. The most common conditions seen by MSF health care teams include injuries from falls, skin problems due to stings and bites, and foot injuries.

In addition to medical care, MSF provides urgently needed mental health care to people who have traumatic experiences crossing the jungle. People frequently tell MSF staff of having seen dead bodies on the route and injured people who have been left behind, unable to continue. Between April and October, MSF provided 877 individual mental health consultations, and 3,475 people have participated in our group consultations.

MSF teams have provided care to 288 victims of sexual violence since April. "We imagine that [this number] only represent 25 percent of those that actually occur,” said Gironés. “Migrants generally do not report instances of violence or rape for two reasons: the criminalization [they experience] makes them mistrust the authorities, and they want to reach their destination as soon as they can, so avoid getting involved in proceedings that could delay their trip.”

Gironés recalls the story of a teenage girl who was treated by MSF’s medical and mental health teams when she finally reached Panama. “They had raped her on the way. But that wasn't the only trauma she experienced. The distance between her and her mother increased along the way. Everyone has a different pace and, being younger, she moved on ahead. So, when we treated her in Bajo Chiquito [the first town people arrive in], not only was she traumatized by the rape, but she also had the added anxiety of wondering if the same thing happened to her mother and whether she would see her mother alive again.”

For a brief period between September and October, the number of people seeking treatment for violence related injuries and sexual violence decreased significantly—attributed to a greater presence of authorities along the route, including Servicio Nacional de Fronteras (SENAFRONT, the National Border Service). But their presence has dropped, and criminal groups have returned.

“We have had 18 cases of sexual assault in the last week— overwhelming numbers,” said Gironés. “Clearly [the violence] can be stopped—it has been proven—but appropriate measures need to be taken once again to put an end to this.”

MSF medical teams have also seen a slight improvement in the condition that many people are arriving in due to a new Canoe service operated by the Bajo Chiquito community that shortens the crossing by two days. “That provides a great deal of relief,” said Gironés. “We no longer see people emerging from the Darién with their feet ravaged and terribly swollen.” But this service costs, and not everyone can afford to use it.

According to the Panamanian Migration Department, 121,737 migrants have entered Panama via the Darién gap so far this year—29,604 in October alone—more than the previous 11 years combined.

“We're talking about a group of people largely made up of families, with pregnant women and children in transit,” said Breuil. “We’re therefore renewing our request for safe routes and protection for everyone, especially families, along the entire route. Free and orderly transit between the two countries is the only sustainable option to guarantee protection for these people.”