Human Rights Watch calls for investigation into the Darien Gap immigration crisis.

In Miami, they came via rafts and boats. In California and Texas, it is through the desert. But these immigrants are passing through a treacherous jungle landscape to try to seek asylum.
An investigation by the organization points out the deficiencies in care for victims of sexual violence, as well as the pending task of identifying and recovering bodies in the jungle.

The organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) made a strong call to the governments of Panama and Colombia to “address the rights of irregular migrants and asylum seekers who transit through the border jungle,” which last year exceeded 520,000. In addition to this, he asks that they adequately investigate “the abuses committed against him,” says a report from the organization.

The 120-page report issued by HRW on migration through the Darien Gap titled “Abandoned in the Jungle: “Protection and Assistance for Migrants and Asylum Seekers in the Darien Gap,” the second of its kind, identified deficiencies in the efforts to protect and assist migrants, including unaccompanied children and adolescents, as well as investigating abuses committed against them. But he also asked the United States and the governments of the region “not to leave Colombia and Panama alone to face the challenges of the jungle.” Instead, they should support efforts to assist and protect migrants and offer options to ensure that no one is forced to risk their lives in the jungle.

HRW visited the Darien Gap four times between April 2022 and June 2023. During that period, it interviewed 300 people, including asylum seekers, victims of serious abuses, humanitarian workers, and authorities from Panama and Colombia. In addition to that, they conducted telephone and virtual interviews between January 2022 and March of this year, and analyzed official and United Nations documentation on the subject.

In this investigation, HRW detected that on both sides of the border the authorities do not effectively protect the right to life and physical integrity of migrants, or effectively and exhaustively investigate violations against them. The report indicates that efforts to guarantee access to food, water and basic health services have been inefficient, which affects the rights of both the migrant population and local communities, which have been marginalized for years and have suffered high Poverty indices.

Among the crimes against migrants, they mention cases of sexual violence, which are normally “not investigated or punished.” Also the accountability for these abuses, described as “rare” due to the limitation of personnel and resources and the absence of a criminal investigation strategy, as well as the poor coordination between the Colombian and Panamanian authorities.

HRW asked the Panamanian government to “urgently” reconsider its decision not to renew the contract with Doctors Without Borders, suspended on March 4, to guarantee the rights of migrants. “Restricting the work of Doctors Without Borders is exactly the opposite of what is needed to address the situation in the Darien Gap,” said Juanita Goebertus, director of HWR’s Americas division.

The call for attention occurs in a year that predicts breaking the record numbers of migrants crossing the dangerous jungle, if the trend presented in the first two months of the year continues. In January and February 2024, 73,167 migrants were counted, compared to the same period last year, when there were 49,291.

The majority are of Venezuelan, Haitian and Ecuadorian nationality, in addition to Colombians and people from continents such as Asia and Africa who have suffered, the report states, serious abuses including sexual violence. In numbers, more than 1,300 people have reported cases of sexual violence to MSF between April 2021 and January 2024, but the numbers may be even higher, according to HRW. A number that contrasts with the 285 victims of sexual violence reported by the Attorney General’s Office of Panama in the same period. In previous reports, La Estrella de Panamá has published that the disparity between both reports is mainly due to the fact that migrants are not willing to file a complaint due to the rush to reach their destination. Filing a complaint involves staying in Panama longer than the estimated time, appearing before the authorities in the hope that they will identify the aggressor, an extraordinary cost and time that throws migrants off their plans.

In another aspect, the report highlights the danger of the stretch, the lives that the jungle swallows. It points to hundreds of dead or missing during the crossing. Many have not been found. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 245 people disappeared between 2021 and March 2023, and as in previous cases, it is also possible that the real number is much higher.

HRW recalled the case it documented in October 2022 of a Venezuelan couple who undertook the journey with their three children through the Darién jungle. In the middle of the walk, a stranger offered to take his six-year-old son to speed up the trip. Soon, the group passed them, and when they caught up with them the next morning, the man told them that his son had drowned while crossing the river. It took Panamanian authorities eight days to begin the search, and Interpol issued an alert for his disappearance more than a month later. To this day the child remains missing.

HRW researchers identified that Colombia lacks a clear strategy to guarantee the rights of migrants. The above responds to the scarce state presence that leaves these people in the hands of the Gulf Clan, the criminal group that controls the flow of migrants and asylum seekers and benefits from their desperation and vulnerability.

On repeated occasions, Panama’s Director of Immigration, Samira Gozaine, has insisted on the danger of the road and that Darién is not a route for migrants. Publicly, it has drawn the attention of Human Rights organizations that support migration in encouraging safe routes, since the call for the right to migrate can apply to any route that migrants decide, such as Darién, a jungle that belongs to a national park, not to a transit road to the north. When migrants arrive in Panama, after several days of walking, the “controlled flow” strategy is applied. For HRW, this tactic seems focused on restricting the movement of these people within Panama and ensuring that they quickly reach Costa Rica, instead of addressing their needs and guaranteeing that they can request refuge.

In order to address the issue, the report suggests that Colombia and Panama appoint a senior official in charge of coordinating the response to the increase in migration through the Darién Gap. Likewise, strengthen cooperation between both governments, as well as with United Nations agencies and other humanitarian organizations that operate in the area.

It also proposes working with humanitarian organizations and local communities to establish a joint mechanism for the rescue of missing people in the jungle and for the identification and recovery of bodies of the deceased. Another suggestion is to redouble efforts to prevent, investigate and punish sexual violence against migrants, increasing forensic capacity in the region, prioritizing investigations of these cases, and addressing the obstacles that make it difficult for victims to report crimes. Likewise, in collaboration with humanitarian organizations, they should reinforce medical assistance, including psychological assistance, to the victims.

In conclusion, the situation in the Darién Gap requires a broader effort from the entire region, the report states. He also points out that the Latin American and United States governments should reverse the measures that are preventing access to refuge and that lead people to cross dangerous places like Darién. A propitious moment to do so is the 40th anniversary of the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, a historic instrument on the rights of refugees in Latin America, by jointly adopting new migration policies that are respectful of human rights.

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