"How can you survive five rapes?” Asks a Venezuelan migrant, crying, who was forced by the economic conditions in her country to cross the Darién, a route that is described as one of the most dangerous in the world and whose name is hidden for security reasons, she witnessed repeated episodes of sexual violence on her journey. “We were crossing the jungle looking for a better future, not for our lives to end,” she says. “A snake does not end your life; your life is ended by the men inside the jungle who rape and kill.”
This survivor is one of nearly 460,000 migrants who have crossed the Darien Gap so far this year on their journey north towards the United States, during which they are exposed to all kinds of risks, from falling down cliffs and drowning in rivers to robbery, kidnapping and rape.
The woman tells how the entire group with whom she was traveling was kidnapped by armed men and subjected to violence. “They beat me on my legs with a bat, because those of us who had no money were beaten,” she says. “Those who said they didn’t have any money, but when searched were found to have some, were hurt even more. They said: 'Oh yes, she has some money,' and they raped them. I saw many people raped. I saw them left naked and beaten. One, two or three of them grab you and rape you, and then the next one comes and rapes you again, and if you scream, they beat you.”
Sexual violence in the Darien Gap is increasing, according to the numbers of survivors seeking assistance from MSF in Panama. In October alone, MSF teams assisted 107 people; this included one week when 59 people sought care from MSF – which equates to one event of sexual violence occurring every three hours. Three of the rape survivors were children aged 11, 12 and 16.
Shocking as these statistics are, they are likely to be a significant under-estimate, as sexual violence often goes under-reported due to stigma and fear.
“Not all people who experience sexual violence receive timely attention, due to the stigma against victims surrounding this form of violence, threats from perpetrators, forms of sexual violence not recognised as such, and the fact that people do not feel safe asking for help,” says MSF medical coordinator Carmenza Gálvez. “In addition, there is the fear that reporting the crimes against them may delay their journey north.”
MSF patients have told our teams that armed men are kidnapping groups of migrants and stealing their money, telling them that is the cost for passing through the Darien Gap. Patients have described how sexual violence, ranging from unwanted touching to rape, occurs in front of other migrants or in tents set up for that purpose. Ninety-five per cent of the victims of sexual violence treated by MSF were female. Those who tried to defend the victims were themselves subjected to violence and in some cases killed.
“Some young men were also beaten and thrown onto the ground for trying to defend the women,” says the Venezuelan woman. “They killed a boy in front of us with a shot to the forehead.”
The woman issues a plea: “We only ask that there are no more deaths or rapes. It is not fair that they do this to us. We are warrior women for our children. We understand there are rivers, animals and snakes, but most harmful are the men inside the jungle. They are raping us and ending our lives.”
MSF staff in Panama treating the survivors of sexual violence point to its serious medical and psychological repercussions. “Sexual violence has consequences for people’s physical and psychological health, such as sexually transmitted infections that can affect women’s fertility if not treated in time,” says Gálvez. “It can expose them to HIV infection, with the consequent risk of developing AIDS and infecting others. It can cause physical trauma, unwanted pregnancies, social isolation, feelings of guilt, recurrent thoughts about the events experienced, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, insomnia and the risk of substance abuse, and it increases the risk of new events of sexual violence.”
MSF is calling on the governments to ensure an effective presence in the Darien Gap to end the many risks to which migrants are exposed, including sexual violence. “No one should have to suffer this type of violence,” says Gálvez. MSF also calls on the government to ensure that survivors of sexual violence can access medical care within 72 hours to avoid unwanted pregnancies, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is an international medical humanitarian organization that assists populations in the most critical situations. MSF provides free and confidential support to people on the move at different points along the migration route between South America, Central America, Mexico and the United States.
In Panama, MSF provides medical care at the Lajas Blancas and San Vicente temporary migrant reception centres and in the Bajo Chiquito community. From January to October 2023, MSF teams provided 51.500 medical consultations, 2.400 mental health consultations, 17.400 wound dressings and treated 397 cases of sexual violence. Migration is not a crime. Human mobility is a universal right.