World, Americas

Human Rights Watch accuses Panama, Colombia of not protecting migrants in Darien Gap

More than 500,000 migrants crossed Darien Gap in 2023, where they face abuse, armed groups, kidnapping, death, says rights group

Laura Gamba Fadul  | 03.04.2024 - Update : 03.04.2024
Human Rights Watch accuses Panama, Colombia of not protecting migrants in Darien Gap Migrants most of them Haitians cross border between Panama and Colombia daily, taking their families with them, children, partners, old men, on October 15, 2021 in Darien, Panama. ( Jorge Calle - Anadolu Agency )

BOGOTA, Colombia

Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the governments of Panama and Colombia on Wednesday of failing to "protect" migrants who cross the inhospitable Darien jungle headed to the US. 

In a 110-page report, HRW found that on both sides of the border, authorities are not protecting the right to life of migrants who are crossing the treacherous jungle and are failing to investigate violations, including sexual abuse, armed groups, kidnapping and death. 

“Whatever the reason for their journey, migrants and asylum seekers crossing the Darién Gap are entitled to basic safety and respect for their human rights along the way,” said Juanita Goebertus, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. 

HRW found that Colombia has a limited government presence in the region, which leaves migrants unprotected from armed groups such as the Gulf Clan that controls the flow of migrants.  

The Panamanian government implements a strategy of “controlled flow,” which restricts the free movement of migrants within the country and seeks their swift exit to Costa Rica, rather than addressing their needs, said the report. 

“Colombian and Panamanian authorities can and should do more to ensure the rights of migrants and asylum seekers crossing their countries, as well as of local communities that have experienced years of neglect,” said Goebertus. 

More than half a million people, including 113,000 children, crossed the Darien Gap in 2023 and Panamanian authorities estimate the number crossing is likely to be higher in 2024. 

An excess of 1,500 people have reported sexual violence since 2021 and the International Organization for Migration reported 245 have disappeared between 2021 and March 2023, although the actual figure is likely much higher. The crimes against migrants in the Darien Gap go largely uninvestigated and unpunished by authorities from both countries. 

In early March, Panama ordered Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to stop treating people who are crossing the jungle, which leaves a void in life-saving health care services for vulnerable migrants. 

“We are extremely concerned about the consequences that the suspension of our activities has on people on the move through the Darien Gap,” the medical charity said in a statement.

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