By Felicia J. Persaud
“We ventured through the jungle in search of a brighter future, not to meet our demise. A snake doesn’t end your life; it’s the men lurking in the jungle who subject us to rape and murder.”
These chilling words struck a chord with me, bringing tears to my eyes. The unimaginable horror they described was laid bare in a recent report from Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, (MSF).
This grim reality unfolds in the name of pursuing the American dream, across the perilous expanse known as the Darién Gap, a dense forested region separating Panama from Colombia. Over 520,000 migrants braved this treacherous journey towards the United States in 2023 alone – more than double the number reported the year before, according to government figures reported by Reuters. They expose themselves to a multitude of risks, including the harrowing ordeal of sexual violence.
Luis Eguiluz, MSF’s head of mission in Colombia and Panama, laments: “Sexual violence in the Darién is increasingly cruel and dehumanizing. Patient testimonies tell of armed men kidnapping entire groups of migrants, stealing their money, and telling them it is the cost of passing through. Sexual violence, ranging from touching to rape, occurs in front of other people or in tents set up for that purpose in the middle of the jungle.”
Tragically, 95% of the survivors of sexual violence treated by MSF are women. Those who dare to intervene on behalf of victims are met with violence themselves, and in some cases, even death.
According to MSF, between January and October 2023, their teams in Panama treated 397 survivors of sexual violence. In October 2023 alone, there were 107 cases, averaging almost one incident of sexual violence every three hours. Shockingly, three of the rape victims were children aged 11, 12, and 16. Moreover, MSF treated 76 cases of sexual violence in Honduras in 2023, 61 in Guatemala, and 500 in Mexico.
These statistics likely underestimate the true scale of the problem due to fear, stigma, and the reluctance of victims to report these heinous crimes. Carmenza Gálvez, MSF’s medical coordinator, explains, “Not everyone who experiences sexual violence seeks help promptly due to the social stigma, threats from perpetrators, limited recognition of various forms of sexual violence, and the fear that reporting these crimes might further delay their journey north.”
One survivor, a Venezuelan woman, recounted the horrific ordeal of her entire group being kidnapped and subjected to violence. She described, “They beat me on my legs with a bat because those without money were beaten. Those who claimed to have no money but were found to have some were subjected to even more brutality. They would say, ‘Oh yes, she has some money,’ and then they would rape them. I witnessed many people being raped, stripped naked, and left battered. They take turns, one, two, or three of them assaulting you, and if you scream, they beat you.”
She also revealed that some young men were brutally beaten and thrown to the ground while attempting to defend the women. “I saw them kill a boy with a gunshot to the forehead right before our eyes,” she told MSF.
Such inhumanity knows no boundaries, underscoring the complexity of the immigration issue. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but it is evident that migration, while not a crime, should occur through legal and orderly channels. This is particularly crucial given the current labor shortages in the United States.
Migrants should be afforded the opportunity to apply for asylum and seasonal jobs at US consulates in their home countries, where their applications can be processed or rejected, rather than embarking on perilous journeys through the Darien Gap. The desperation is palpable, but the price of rape and death is too high. It is time for the US Congress to fund modernization of the US immigration system, eliminating backlogs and expediting processing in a humane and timely manner.
Simply advocating for border closure is not a viable solution, since desperation remains the primary driving force behind northward migration. “We urge authorities and other organizations to redouble their efforts to provide dignified care for these people,” said Camilo Velez, MSF deputy mission chief in Mexico and Central America.. “Migrants have the right to urgent protection and humanitarian assistance.”
Felicia J. Persaud is the publisher of NewsAmericasNow.com, a daily news outlet focusing on Black immigrant issues.