Shocking increase in sexual violence reported in Darién Gap 

MSF medical teams in Panama reported a sevenfold increase in patients seeking care for sexual violence.

Migrants cross a river in the Darien Gap

During their journey through the Darién Gap, migrants must cross the Acandí and Tuquesa rivers. Traveling in groups does not protect them from attacks. | Dairén Gap 2023 © Juan Carlos Tomasi/MSF

Doctors Without Border/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) medical teams in southern Panama provided care to 214 survivors of sexual violence in December 2023—more than a sevenfold increase compared with prior months despite a lull in migration through the dangerous Darién Gap in the same period. MSF’s team was already overwhelmed treating 30 to 35 patients for sexual violence each month, so they are extremely concerned about this sudden increase. 

“Every month we record a higher number of total cases [of sexual violence],” says Carmenza Gálvez, MSF medical coordinator in Colombia and Panama. “This is appalling.” 

The number of sexual violence survivors treated by MSF teams in December constitute one-third of the 676 cases treated throughout 2023. MSF has repeatedly raised the alarm about escalating sexual violence against migrants in the Darién Gap, but the situation is only worsening. 

People attacked in groups 

In recent months, and with increasing frequency, MSF patients have described mass events of sexual violence. Survivors describe armed men in the Darién Gap detaining groups of up to 200 migrants within a few hours of  crossing the border from Colombia to Panama, forcing them to remove their clothes, and committing a range of sexual assaults, from unwanted touching to rape. MSF received reports of  two such group attacks in October, two in November, and four in December. 

Most victims that come to receive care from MSF teams in Panama for sexual violence are women, but we have also provided treatment for sexual violence to men and children. 

MSF believes that many people do not report sexual violence for multiple reasons such as fear, stigma, not knowing care is available, or not wanting to delay their journey north, and therefore the true number of victims is likely much higher. The consequences for victims who do not receive care can be devastating. 

Reaching everyone who needs care

“One of our biggest concerns is under-reporting, since once [rape] occurs, people must receive [medication] within 72 hours to avoid contracting HIV or other sexually transmitted [infections] and [to prevent] unwanted pregnancies,” said said Gálvez. But survivors that seek care outside this window can still receive other vital treatment, including mental health care and first aid. 

MSF’s medical and social support team is trying to find new ways to identify more people who might need these services.

In addition to sexual violence, migrants have reported being victims of robberies, attacks, and kidnappings on their journeys through the Darién Gap. 

Governments’ inaction leads to worsening situation 

Between January 1 and December 31 2023, more than 520,000 people crossed the Darién Gap, nearly double the 248,000 who crossed in 2022 and more than triple the 133,000 who crossed in 2021. 

MSF teams in Panama have been providing medical care to people in transit at two temporary migration reception stations in Lajas Blancas and San Vicente and in the indigenous community of Bajo Chiquito since April 2021. 

In 2023, MSF staff provided 59,800 consultations, including 21,000 consultations for children under 15 years old and 1,000 consultations for pregnant women. MSF mental health staff provided almost 3,000 individual mental health consultations. 

MSF provides free and confidential support to people on the move at various points along the migration route between South America, Central America, Mexico, and the United States

“We demand effective action by governments to guarantee the safety and dignity of migrants [crossing] the Darién Gap,” said Gálvez. “No one should have to face this or any other form of violence for migrating.”