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HRW says Panama, Colombia failing to protect migrants in jungle

Migrants cross the Tuquesa river near Bajo Chiquito village, the first border control of the Darien Province in Panama, on September 22, 2023 (Luis ACOSTA)
Migrants cross the Tuquesa river near Bajo Chiquito village, the first border control of the Darien Province in Panama, on September 22, 2023 (Luis ACOSTA)

Human Rights Watch on Wednesday accused Colombia and Panama of failing to do enough to protect hundreds of thousands of US-bound migrants crossing the dense, lawless jungle between the two countries.

Last year, more than half a million people braved the Darien Gap, where they face perilous river crossings, wild animals and violent criminal gangs that extort, kidnap and abuse them.

"Whatever the reason for their journey, migrants and asylum seekers crossing the Darien Gap are entitled to basic safety and respect for their human rights along the way," HRW's Americas director Juanita Goebertus said in a statement.

"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," she added.

Despite the dangers, the Darien Gap has become a key corridor for migrants hoping to reach the United States.

In 2023, a record 520,000 people crossed the jungle, according to the Panamanian government.

In its 110-page report, HRW said Colombia "lacks a clear strategy" to protect those crossing the gap, with limited government presence leaving them exposed to the Gulf Clan, a drug trafficking cartel and major player in the migrant business.

Panama, meanwhile, focuses more on restricting movement and rushing migrants through to Costa Rica, rather than "addressing their needs or ensuring that they can exercise their right to seek asylum."

The NGO reported that on both sides of the border, authorities were not doing enough to investigate and punish violations such as pervasive sexual abuse or look for missing people.

Since 2021, there have been more than 1,500 reports of sexual violence in the Darien Gap, but the real number is likely to be higher, HRW said.

Dozens, possibly hundreds, of people have lost their lives trying to cross or are missing in the region, it said.

It also found "inadequate" efforts to guarantee access to food, water, and essential healthcare services.

The report's release comes after medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in February criticized a sharp rise in sexual violence against migrants, and accused Panama of not doing enough to protect them.

MSF said an average of 16 women were raped a day in February.

In response, Panama's government suspended MSF's humanitarian work in the Darien Gap and accused it of failing to share data on the alleged victims.

The government also accused international aid groups of encouraging illegal migration by handing out maps to help migrants cross the jungle.

Goebertus also urged foreign governments to aid efforts to protect the migrants, saying Colombia and Panama "should not be left alone to respond to the challenges in the Darien Gap."

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