The migrants arrive across the Tuquesa River at the Lajas Blancas Migrant Reception Station, a camp set up by the Panamanian government. Panama, 2023. © Juan Carlos Tomasi/MSF

MSF demands action to stop brutality and sexual violence in the Darien Gap

People on the migration route through the Darién Gap, the roadless region between Colombia and Panama, experience an intensified level of brutality and cruelty in attacks of sexual violence. In the last two months, teams from Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have also recorded an exponential increase in the number of assaults, in what is feared to be a worsening of the already dire situation on the route. MSF urges Panamanian authorities to immediately strengthen measures to protect migrants.

According to preliminary figures, in just one week in February MSF teams treated 113 people – including nine children – after they were sexually assaulted by criminal groups operating in the Darién. This number is close to the 120 people treated during the whole of January. These figures are double the monthly average treated during 2023, when 676 people were treated for the whole year. MSF teams are horrified and worried by this growing trend and are outraged at the level of impunity with which these criminal groups operate.

“This increase in the number of attacks is unimaginable,” says Luis Eguiluz, MSF’s country director in Panama and Colombia. “We had already treated very high numbers of people in December and January, and there was talk of occasional deaths.”

“But now, in these latest attacks, the level of brutality is extreme: a dozen armed men are detaining larger and larger groups of migrants, between 100 and 400 people, threatening them, assaulting them, systematically sexually abusing women, in front of other migrants and even in front of their families and children,” says Eguiluz. “In a recent episode, several migrants have told us how those who refused to cooperate were shot dead.”

“These outrageous crimes are on the increase and, what’s worse, nobody seems to care, we don’t see much change in the impunity with which the attackers operate,” continues Eguiluz.

MSF has repeatedly condemned the vulnerability of migrants in the Darién and has teams specialised in treating sexual assault as a medical emergency for people who need it when they emerge from forest.

“The levels of violence and sexual violence we are seeing in the Darién are unheard of, I haven’t seen them in other humanitarian crises,” says Eguiluz. “We see a complete lack of action to address the situation or help with its consequences.”

“We renew our call to the Panamanian authorities to redouble their efforts to protect the most vulnerable people on their territory, especially in the Darién,” says Eguiluz. “Many of them are families, women and children, in desperate situations. It is unacceptable that this continues to happen.” 

Since April 2021, MSF has been providing medical and psychological services to people in transit who arrive in Panama through the Darién. Teams are currently present in the community of Bajo Chiquito and at the Lajas Blancas migrant reception centre.