The first time I spoke with survivors of the Darien Gap – the notoriously deadly stretch of jungle on the Colombia-Panama border – was in 2021 when I memoir imprisonment in Siglo XXIMexico’s largest migrant detention center, located in the Mexican state of Chiapas, near the border with Guatemala.
I was the only detainee from the United States – the very country responsible for Mexico’s immigration crackdown in the first place – and I had ended up in immigration prison only because of my own stupidity and laziness in renewing my tourist visa. My fellow inmates faced rather existential hardships, and many of them – from Haiti, Cuba, Bangladesh and elsewhere – had been forced to cross the Darien Gap as they fled a political and economic calamity in the hope of eventually finding refuge in the United States. .
Within the walls of Siglo XXI, where dreams of refuge had been put on the back burner indefinitely, the Darien was a recurring topic of conversation – a sort of spontaneous exercise in group therapy, it seemed. The women recounted the many corpses they had encountered during their travels. Rape, it was clear, was rampant in the jungle – to the point that even those not personally assaulted were vicariously traumatized.
Indeed, in this densest and most impenetrable forest, sexual violence against asylum seekers has become institutionalized. This violence can be perpetrated by local residents, paramilitaries or a range of criminal actors whose activities are allowed to take place with impunity in the general context of criminalized migration.
In February of this year, I traveled to the Darien region of Panama. Of course, I didn’t have to risk my life or my physical integrity to do so – such is the obscene and arbitrary privilege conferred by the passport of the United States, a country notorious for stirring up trouble around the world, then militarizing its borders against anyone who wishes to flee the disorder.
In the town of Metetí, in the province of Darién, I spoke with Tamara Guillermo, field coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières (Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF), who expressed her horror at the “level of brutality” and the extreme “wickedness” currently on display in the jungle – where sexual assaults, including against men, have remained normal.
According to Guillermo, there had been a recent increase in reports of people being held up by armed assailants in the Darien and forced to remove all their clothing for a manual inspection of bodily orifices to ensure nothing of value was found. had been hidden. far. Often the women were then separated from the group and raped.
In Metetí, I also spoke with a young Venezuelan woman – we’ll call her Alicia – whose two-year-old son threw a foam ball at me and pinched my nose during our conversation, in between- time distracted by a cartoon about velociraptors.
Alicia had spent 10 days crossing the Darien, she told me, and every night she had cried. She hadn’t been raped, but she had heard of many rapes and she had seen many deaths – like the body of an old man bent under a tree that “looked cold”. She had met a Haitian woman whose six-month-old baby had just drowned. She had been stripped of her puppy and then of all valuables not hidden in her son’s nappies when a group of 10 hooded men descended on her group.
In Spanish, the verb “to violate” can mean either “to violate” – as in human rights – or “to violate”. And while Alicia may not have been physically violated in the latter sense, the DariénGap pretty much qualifies as a continuing violation.
But the Darién Gap is not the only trajectory where asylum seekers must endure the brutal and often sexual violation of their dignity. Around the world, we humans have demonstrated a sadistic knack for exploiting vulnerable people on the move – people whose status as “migrants” usually has a lot to do with the fact that they have already suffered enormously in life. .
Take Libya, the main point of departure for refugees heading to Europe fleeing war and economic misery, which has received all kinds of rape, slavery and torture -including children seeking asylum. While the West tries to blame the entire sinister arrangement on the ever-practical fantasy of African savagery, the reality is that the blame lies right at the foot 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 favorite offshore ‘treatment’ centre, a 2020 report published jointly by the Refugee Council of Australia and the Asylum Seeker Resource Center noted“For years there have been tragic accounts of rape and sexual abuse of women in Nauru, including by those paid to protect them.”
Speaking of so-called “protection,” Panamanian authorities are now under fire over allegations of sexual and other abuse at migrant reception centers in Darién province. Pardon my pessimism about the prospects for justice.
During my stay in the Darién region, I also spoke with Marilen Osinalde, MSF’s mental health manager in Metetí, who regularly cares for patients who have suffered sexual and other violence. She pointed out to me that while there is a persistent Western stereotype that rapists are “psychopaths who catch you on the street at night,” the phenomenon is rather more complex.
In the case of the Darién Gap and other migrant trajectories, she explained, the landscape of sexual assault against people who cross it is linked to the assertion of power, status and impunity – as well than marking the territory. The use of rape as a “weapon” in the Darien also objectifies and dehumanizes the migrant “Other,” she said, further entrenching power structures.
Zoom into the Darien and we find ourselves in a world of borders that dehumanize and criminalize asylum seekers and other destitute, all in an effort to mark territory and reinforce power structures. The United States penetrates international borders at will while fortifying its own – and converting spaces like the Darien Gap into physical and psychological weapons.
From Panama to Libya to Nauru, a war is waged against people deprived not only of the right to cross borders but also of the right to control the very limits of their bodies. And it is a violation of humanity indeed.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.