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Rape as a weapon of war against asylum seekers

Disturbing reports of sexual assault in the Darién Gap reveal yet another horrifying aspect of border warfare.

A group of people cross a river during their journey through the Darien Gap from Colombia into Panama hoping to reach the US on October 15, 2022 [AP/Fernando Vergara]

The first time I spoke with survivors of the Darién Gap – the notoriously deadly stretch of jungle on the border between Colombia and Panama – was in 2021 during my brief imprisonment in Siglo XXI, Mexico’s largest immigration detention centre, located in the Mexican state of Chiapas near the border with Guatemala.

I was the only detainee who hailed from the United States – the very country responsible for Mexico’s 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 inmates were facing rather more existential predicaments, and many of them – from Haiti, Cuba, Bangladesh, and beyond – had been forced to traverse the Darién Gap as they fled political and economic calamity in the hopes of eventually finding refuge in the US. Within the walls of Siglo XXI, where dreams of refuge had been indefinitely put on hold, the Darién was a recurring topic of conversation – a sort of spontaneous exercise in group therapy, it seemed. Women recounted the numerous cadavers they had encountered during their journeys. Rape, it was clear, was rampant in the jungle – to the extent that even those who were not personally assaulted, were vicariously traumatised.

Indeed, in this densest and most impenetrable of forests, sexual violence against refuge seekers has become institutionalised. This violence may be perpetrated by local inhabitants, paramilitaries, or an array of criminal actors whose activities are permitted to proceed with impunity in the general context of criminalised migration.

In February of this year, I travelled to Panama’s Darién region. I did not, of course, have to risk my life or physical integrity to do so – such being the obscene and arbitrary privilege conferred by the passport of the US, a country known for stirring up trouble worldwide and then militarising its borders against anyone wishing to flee the mess.

In the town of Metetí in Darién province, 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 “viciousness” currently on display in the jungle – where sexual aggression, including against men, remained par for the course. According to Guillermo, there had been a recent uptick in reports from people who had been held up by armed assailants in the Darién and forced to remove all of their clothing for a manual inspection of bodily orifices, to ensure that nothing of value had been tucked away. 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 throughout our conversation, in between being distracted by a cartoon about velociraptors.

Alicia had spent 10 days crossing the Darién, she told me, and every night she had cried. She had not been raped, but she had heard about many rapes, and she had seen plenty of death – like the hunched-over body of an old man under a tree who “looked like he was cold”. She had met a Haitian woman whose six-month-old baby had just drowned. She had been robbed of her puppy and then of all valuables that were not hidden in her son’s diapers when a group of 10 hooded men descended upon her group.

In Spanish, the verb “violar” can mean either “to violate” – as in human rights – or “to rape”. And while Alicia may not have been physically violated in the latter sense, the DariénGap pretty much qualifies as one continuous violation.

But the Darién Gap is not the only trajectory where refuge seekers must endure the brutal and often sexual violation of their dignity. Worldwide, we humans have demonstrated a sadistic knack for exploiting vulnerable people on the move – people whose status as “migrants” usually has much to do with the fact that they have already suffered tremendously in life. Take Libya, a primary point of departure for Europe-bound refugees fleeing war and economic misery, which has played host to all manner of rape, slavery, and torture -including of refuge-seeking children. Try as the West might to pin responsibility for the whole sinister arrangement on the ever-handy 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 Nauru, the site of Australia’s preferred offshore asylum “processing” centre, a 2020 report jointly published by the Refugee Council of Australia and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre noted: “For years, there have been tragic accounts of rape and sexual abuse of females in Nauru, including by those paid to protect them”.

Speaking of supposed “protection”, Panamanian authorities have now come under fire regarding allegations of sexual and other abuse at migrant reception centres in Darién province. Forgive me my pessimism at 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. She remarked to me that, while there is a persistent Western stereotype of rapists as “psychopaths who grab you in the street in the night”, the phenomenon is rather more complex.

In the case of the Darién Gap and other migrant trajectories, she explained, the landscape of sexual aggression against people crossing it has to do with asserting power, status, and impunity – as well as with marking territory. The use of rape as a “weapon” in the Darién also objectifies and dehumanises the migrant “Other”, she said, further solidifying power structures. Zoom out from the Darién, and we find ourselves in a world of borders that dehumanise and criminalise refuge seekers and other have-nots, all in the interest of marking territory and reinforcing power structures. The US penetrates international borders at will while fortifying its own – and converts 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 deprived not only of the right to cross borders but also of the right to control the very boundaries of their bodies. And that is a violation of humanity indeed.

Belén Fernández Al Jazeera columnist

19 Mar 2023


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