The first time I spoke to the survivors of the the Darién Gap – the notoriously deadly stretch of jungle on the border between Colombia and Panama – was in 2021 during my brief imprisonment in the XXI CenturyMexico’s largest immigration detention center, located in the Mexican state of Chiapas near the Guatemalan border.
I was the only detainee who came from the United States – the very country responsible for the migration crackdown in the first place – and I had ended up in migrant jail purely on account of my own stupidity and laziness in renewing my tourist visa. My fellow prisoners faced even more problems, and many of them – from Haiti, Cuba, Bangladesh, and beyond – were forced to cross the Darién Gap as they fled the political and economic disaster in hope who will eventually find refuge in the US.
Within the walls of the XXI Century, where dreams of refuge are not suppressed, Darién is a recurring topic of conversation – apparently a kind of spontaneous exercise in group therapy. The women recounted the many corpses they encountered on their journey. Rape, it is clear, is rampant in the jungle – to the extent that even those who are not personally assaulted, are vicariously traumatised.
In fact, in this thickest and most impenetrable jungle, sexual violence against asylum seekers has become institutionalized. This violence may be perpetrated by local residents, paramilitaries, or a range of criminal actors whose activities are allowed to continue with impunity in the general context of criminalized migration.
In February of this year, I traveled to the Darién region of Panama. Of course, I didn’t have to risk my life or physical integrity to do so – such as the obscene and arbitrary privilege afforded by a US passport, a country known for inciting global unrest and then militarization of its borders against anyone who wishes. to escape trouble.
In the town of Metetí in the province of Darién, I spoke with Tamara Guillermo, field coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF), who expressed horror at the “level of brutality” and extreme “vice” that exists shown in the jungle – where sexual aggression, including against men, remained par for the course.
According to Guillermo, there has recently been an increase in reports from people who were held by armed assailants in Darién and forced to remove all their clothes for a manual inspection of the body holes, to make sure that there is nothing of value the hidden. far away Often, women are separated from the group and raped.
In Metetí, I also spoke to a young Venezuelan woman – we’ll call her Alicia – whose two-year-old son threw a bubble ball at me and pinched my nose throughout our conversation, in between interruptions of a cartoon about velociraptors.
Alicia spent 10 days crossing the Darién, she told me, and every night she cried. He wasn’t raped, but he heard about a lot of rapes, and he saw a lot of death – like the crouched body of an old man under a tree who “looked like he was cold”. He met a Haitian woman whose six-month-old baby had drowned. She was robbed of her puppy and after all the valuables were not hidden in her child’s diapers when a group of 10 hooded men descended on her group.
In Spanish, the verb “violar” can mean either “violation” – as in human rights – or “rape”. And while Alicia may not have been physically violated in the latter sense, the DariénGap almost qualifies as a continuing violation.
But the Darién Gap is not the only trajectory where asylum seekers must endure brutal and often sexual violations of their dignity. All over the world, we humans have shown a sadistic ability to exploit vulnerable people in migration – people whose status as “migrants” usually has to do with the fact that they have suffered a lot in life.
Take Libya, a major departure point for Europe-bound refugees fleeing war and economic hardship, which has played host to all kinds of rape, slavery, and torture -including children seeking asylum. Try as the West may to pin responsibility for the entire evil arrangement on the ever-handy fantasy of African brutality, the truth is that the blame lies squarely at the feet of Fortress Europe.
Meanwhile, in northern Mexico, bipartisan xenophobic US policy has placed countless asylum seekers directly into the hands of rapists and kidnappers. And on the island of Nauruthe site of Australia’s preferred offshore asylum “processing” center, a 2020 report jointly published by the Refugee Council of Australia and the Asylum Seeker Resource Center mentioned: “For years, there have been tragic reports of rape and sexual abuse of women on Nauru, including those paid to protect them”.
Speaking of supposed “protection”, Panamanian authorities are now under fire over allegations of sexual and other abuses at migrant reception centers in Darién province. Forgive me for my pessimism on the prospects for justice.
During my stay in the Darién region, I also spoke with Marilen Osinalde, the mental health manager for MSF in Metetí, who regularly attends to patients who have suffered sexual and other violence. He told me that, while there is a persistent Western stereotype of rapists as “psychopaths who grab you off the street at night”, the phenomenon is more complex.
In the case of the Darién Gap and other migrant trajectories, he explained, the landscape of sexual aggression against people crossing it has to do with asserting power, status, and impunity – as well as marking territory. The use of rape as a “weapon” in Darién also objectifies and invalidates the migrant “Other”, he said, further reinforcing power structures.
Zoom out from Darién, and we find ourselves in a world of borders that acquit and criminalize asylum seekers and other owners, all in the interest of marking territory and affirming of power structures. The US has penetrated international borders at will while fortifying itself – and turning spaces like the Darién Gap into physical and psychological weapons.
From Panama to Libya to Nauru, a war is being waged against people who are denied not only the right to cross borders but also the right to control the very borders of their bodies. And that is a violation of humanity indeed.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.