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Anger as Panama stops MSF working in Darién Gap amid sexual violence spat

‘This sends them a clear message not to speak publicly about human rights violations and sexual assaults.’

This is a photo showing crowds of people. They are migrants heading to the U.S. wait at the Migrants Reception Station in Lajas Blancas, Darien province, Panama. Aris Martinez/Reuters
Migrants heading for the southern US border wait at the reception centre in Lajas Blancas in Panama's Darién province, on 23 September 2023.

Panama has forced Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to suspend assistance to migrants arriving through the Darién Gap amid a public clash over a spike in sexual violence on the notorious jungle passage – the only land route to the United States from South America.

The lawless stretch of rainforest between Colombia and Panama has seen a massive increase in migration in recent years, from a few thousand people less than a decade ago to more than half a million last year. Venezuelans made up the largest contingent in 2023 (328,650), but Ecuadorians, Haitians, and Chinese also made the trip in big numbers.

The refusal to give MSF permission to work in the Darién region – renewal was needed on 4 March – follows months of the medical charity raising the alarm about increasing sexual violence and calling on the Panamanian government to address the worrisome trend.

MSF used to provide medical attention to migrants in the Darién principally for wounds, bacterial and fungal infections, dehydration, malnutrition, and exhaustion, but in recent months the numbers being treated for sexual violence and rape has skyrocketed.


During 2023, a total of 676 migrants sought medical care from MSF after suffering an act of sexual aggression in the Darién. In January 2024 alone, the NGO registered 120 cases, a monthly increase of over 100%, and during a migration period that is typically slower.

“Blocking the operations of MSF sends a chilling message to the international aid community to censor their communications,” Bram Ebus, an investigator and consultant for the International Crisis Group in Colombia, told The New Humanitarian. “This sends them a clear message not to speak publicly about human rights violations and sexual assaults.”

Juan Pappier, acting director of Human Rights Watch in the Americas, echoed this assessment: "This decision could send a message to other humanitarian or human rights organisations that they should not make the situation in the Darién visible. We hope that this decision will be reversed soon.” 

Ebus said that while Panamanian officials and other NGOs, such as UNICEF and Red Cross, provide basic first aid, MSF was the only organisation providing comprehensive specialised medical care to victims of sexual assault — such as inoculations to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and rape kits to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

As the spat worsened, the Panamanian government hit out at international aid groups for encouraging migration by distributing maps, and accused MSF of failing to share data on alleged victims of sexual abuse as is required by law.

"International organisations give (migrants) maps on how to cross the jungle, knowing they are going to be raped, they are going to be robbed. It is extremely irresponsible," Samira Gozaine, the government’s migration director, said in a video posted on X.

In the past, Gozaine has also blamed Colombia for doing little to stem the flow in the stateless regions that dominate the borderlands of both countries – a point also made by Ebus.

Worsening crimes as migration numbers soar

Record numbers of people crossed the Darién Gap in 2023 – more than 520,000. And based on data from Panamanian officials so far this year, numbers in 2024 will likely be even higher. 

While cartels and drug trafficking gangs control the route across from Colombia, and take their cut by extorting migrants on the way along, the Panamanian side of the Darién Gap is lawless and has long been plagued by gangs that prey on migrants. These groups have grown much more sophisticated in recent years, committing robberies, imposing their own extortion rackets, and in some cases sexually assaulting migrants.

Some of these criminals also hail from vulnerable Emberá indigenous communities, explained Ebus. “And this has created a reluctance by Panamanian officials to hold them accountable,” he said.

He also pointed out that the true numbers of sexual assaults are likely under-reported, due to victims who don’t wish to go on the record out of security concerns, a distrust of authorities, or because they wish to avoid further delays in moving north. 

The Panamanian government has done little to battle the myriad criminal groups who prey on migrants in the region, several aid groups and crisis experts told The New Humanitarian.

Officials from Panama’s border guard, SENAFRONT, have also been implicated in cases of sexual violence against migrants, according to sources and witnesses who spoke to the International Crisis Group as part of an extensive report last year.

UN special rapporteurs have made similar accusations.

“This region is stateless,” Ebus told TNH. “The only authorities migrants have direct access to are oftentimes officials from SENAFRONT, who have structurally failed to go after the perpetrators of these crimes.”

MSF declined to comment further on the decision, referring The New Humanitarian to already published comuniqués. Panamanian migration officials and representatives from SENAFRONT did not immediately respond to emails.

Other NGOs providing care in the area have also expressed concern about the impact of the absence of MSF on humanitarian services. 

“We are concerned that the closure of services will impact all migrants crossing the Darién Gap region,” said Sandie Blanchet, spokesperson for UNICEF in Panamá. “UNICEF is in the process of stepping up its support to survivors of sexual violence, and we hope other actors, both the government and NGOs, will also step up to fill the gap.”

Ebus described the current state of affairs as “ridiculous”. 

“It goes against all international and humanitarian standards,’ he said. ”[The Panamanian government is] afraid to address the real rights violations occurring, and so they focus on the aid groups reporting this issue rather than the violent perpetrators.”

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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