Panama and Colombia fail to protect migrants on Darien jungle route, Human Rights Watch says

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Haitian migrants wade through water as they cross the Darien Gap from Colombia to Panama in hopes of reaching the United States, on May 9, 2023. (AP)

BOGOTA, Colombia, April 3, (AP): Colombia and Panama are failing to protect hundreds of thousands of migrants who cross the Darien jungle on their way to the US and have become increasingly vulnerable to robberies and sexual violence, Human Rights Watch said in a report published on Wednesday.
The watchdog called on both countries to appoint high-level officials to coordinate the response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Darien and recommended that their governments work jointly to improve security and ensure more assistance from international groups.
“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,” Juanita Goebertus, Americas director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement issued before the report’s publication.
Goebertus also called on Panama’s government to reconsider a recent decision to suspend the medical charity, Doctors Without Borders, also known as MSF, from operating in its territory.
“Restricting MSF’s work is exactly the opposite of what is needed to address the situation in the Darien Gap,” Goebertus said.
Human Rights Watch’s recommendations come as record numbers of migrants cross the Darien jungle on their way to the US.
Last year, more than 520,000 people crossed the dense and roadless rainforest that stands between South America and Central America, according to Panama’s immigration department. That was twice as many as in 2022.
About half of those making the dangerous journey were Venezuelans escaping their nation’s economic and political crisis. They were joined by tens of thousands of migrants from Ecuador and Haiti, as well as about 4,000 Afghan refugees.
The trek across the rainforest can last anywhere from three to five days, with migrants paying hundreds of dollars to guides and smugglers to lead them along muddy trails and treacherous river crossings. Dozens of people have drowned.
The Colombian side of the Darien is controlled by the Gulf Clan, a drug trafficking group that is taxing local guides and earning up to $125 for every migrant that crosses into Panama, according to estimates provided to HRW by Colombian military officials, and cited in the group’s previous report on the Darien Gap, published in November.
In its most recent report, HRW said that Colombia’s government should ensure that prosecutors “investigate the role of the Gulf Clan in taking migrants and asylum seekers across the Darien Gap.” It also urged Colombia to increase state presence in the area and devote more resources to agencies that investigate attacks on migrants.

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