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

BOGOTA, Colombia — (AP) — Colombia and Panama are failing to protect hundreds of thousands of migrants who cross the Darien jungle on their way to the U.S. 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 U.S.

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.

“Crimes against migrants and asylum seekers in the Darien Gap, including pervasive cases of sexual violence, go largely uninvestigated and unpunished on both sides of the border” the report said. “Accountability for these abuses is rare, due to a combination of limited resources and personnel ... and poor coordination between Colombian and Panamanian authorities.”

In February, Doctors Without Borders said that cases of sexual violence in the Darien were increasing at “exponential” levels, with 113 migrants treated for symptoms of sexual violence at two camps on the northern edge of the Darien Gap in a week's span. The organization said in a news release it was “outraged with the level of impunity” with which criminal groups are operating within the region. Shortly after, MSF's operations in Panama were suspended by that nation's government.

In Wednesday's report HRW urged Panama to allow MSF and other humanitarian groups to operate in the country without “undue restrictions.” It also accused the government of Panama of enacting policies that limit the movements of migrants.

Under a policy known as “controlled flow,” Panama allows migrants who cross the Darien jungle into its territory and hosts them briefly in two camps, where they can pay to board buses that take them straight to Costa Rica, the next country on the road to the U.S.

Human Rights Watch said in its report that Panamanian officials are preventing migrants who cannot pay for bus tickets from leaving the camps. The organization called on Panama to modify its controlled flow strategy and establish a plan that ensures the right of migrants who wish to stay in Panama to seek asylum, while enabling those who want to continue their journey to move freely within the nation.

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