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Colombia and Panama failing to protect people crossing the Darien Gap

COLOMBIA and Panama are failing to protect hundreds of thousands of migrants who cross the Darien Gap on their way to the United States, according to a damning new report from Human Rights Watch today.

HRW said that migrants taking this dangerous route have become increasingly vulnerable to robberies and sexual violence.

The watchdog called on both countries to appoint high-level officials to co-ordinate the response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Darien Gap and said that the two governments must work jointly to improve security and ensure more assistance from international groups.

In a statement before the publication of the report, HRW Americas director Juanita Goebertus said: “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.”

Ms Goebertus also called on Panama’s government to reconsider a recent decision to suspend medical charity Doctors Without Borders (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,” Ms Goebertus said.

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. 

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.

HRW called for an investigation into the Colombian Gulf Clan, a drug-trafficking group that is taxing local guides and earning up to $125 (£100) for every migrant.

The report also called on Panama to “modify” its “controlled flow” policy which allows migrants to be briefly hosted in camps where they can pay to board buses that take them straight to Costa Rica, the next country on the road to the US.

But HRW says that the Panamanians are preventing migrants who cannot pay for bus tickets from leaving the camps. 

The organisation called on Panama to modify the policy to allow 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.

The report also said: “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.”

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