Panama Faces Sexual Violence: Authorities in the Spotlight

complaints of sexual violence point to the Panamanian authorities

A 26-year-old Haitian woman, accompanied by her husband and eight-month-old son, stepped off a boat in Lajas Blancas, one of the first Panamanian municipalities after crossing the Darién Gap on the border with Colombia. She thought the nightmare was over, but it was only beginning. A man in a ski mask assaulted her and her family, stealing their money and documents and raping her in front of them. This October 2021 incident was confirmed by a medical examination conducted by Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

The story is not unique. The United Nations recently released a report claiming that migrants crossing the Darién Jungle are subjected to human trafficking, prostitution, and sexual abuse by criminal organizations, as well as sexual violence by Panamanian authorities. The report claimed that the Migrant Reception Stations (ERM) are run by the National Immigration Service and the National Border Service (Senafront) of Panama, and are characterized by deprivation of liberty and “deplorable” conditions. The Panamanian government denied the accusations, citing the lack of complaints against the authorities.

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The Darién Jungle has been described as “hell on earth” by many migrants, who often risk their lives in pursuit of a better future. Upon arrival in Panama, the border authorities transfer the migrants to the Migrant Reception Stations. The facilities are deficient and lack basic amenities such as drinking water, and food is often limited due to the deliberate action of the authorities. The migrants are then organized by a private company and transported to the border with Costa Rica, at a cost of 40 dollars, which many cannot afford. This has allegedly led to officials requesting sexual exchanges in exchange for transportation, with the promise of allowing them to continue their journey.

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The UN rapporteurship has declared that migrants are not allowed to leave the centers and the only way to continue the journey is to get on the bus, making them particularly vulnerable to abuse. The Panamanian Minister of Public Security, Juan Manuel Pino, has denied the accusations, but the UN document states that migrants who request information about the Ombudsman’s Office to file a complaint have allegedly been subjected to physical and verbal abuse by SNM and SENAFRONT agents.

The situation of migrants in general and migrant women in particular is very worrying on this route. They are subjected to criminal violence for the fact of being migrants and also for being women. In 2021, more than 300 cases of sexual abuse against women were registered and, in 2022, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) received 39,507 migrants for medical and nursing consultations and registered at least 2,600 clinical psychology consultations, 70% of which were people who arrived for consultation after violence-related events.

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The prevalence of gender violence against migrant women, particularly those of African descent and Haitian origin, is a reality. They are subjected to disappearances, rapes, intimidation, and threats by non-state armed agents, and survivors face obstacles in accessing justice and resources, psychosocial and health care, and reparation. Total vulnerability in that jungle is a reality for many, and the justice and reparation systems are practically inaccessible. This is a humanitarian crisis that has become a gender crisis.


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