Rape as a weapon of war against asylum seekers

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Disturbing reports of sexual abuse in the Darien Gap highlight another terrifying aspect of border warfare.

The first time I spoke to survivors of the Darien Gap in the dangerously deadly jungles on the border between Colombia and Panama was during my brief incarceration in Siglo XXI, Mexico’s largest immigration detention center in the Mexican state of Chiapas, in 2021 Near the border with Guatemala.

I was the only detainee who came from the United States – the same country that was first responsible for the migration to Mexico – and I ended up in migrant prison purely because of my stupidity and laziness in renewing my tourist visa . My fellow prisoners were facing rather more existential crises, and many of them — from Haiti, Cuba, Bangladesh and beyond — were forced to cross the Darien Gap as they eventually sought refuge in America. had fled political and economic disaster in the hope of ,

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Within the walls of Siglo XXI, where dreams of asylum were indefinitely put on hold, Darren was a recurring topic of conversation—a kind of spontaneous exercise in group therapy, it seemed. The women told about the numerous dead bodies found during their journey. It was clear that rape was rampant in the jungle – to such an extent that those who had not been personally assaulted were also indirectly traumatized.

In fact, sexual violence against asylum seekers has become institutionalized in this dense and impenetrable jungle. This violence may be perpetrated by local residents, paramilitaries, or an array of criminal actors whose activities are allowed to proceed with impunity in the general context of criminal migration.

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In February of this year, I traveled to the Darién region of Panama. Certainly, I didn’t have to risk my life or physical integrity to do so – such is the obscene and arbitrary privilege granted by the passport of America, a country known for causing trouble around the world and then violating its borders. Known to militarize. To avoid the mess.

In the city of Meteti in Darien province, I spoke with Tamara Guillermo, the field coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontières, or MSF), who expressed horror at the “level of brutality” and extreme “cruelty” currently being demonstrated. is in Wilderness – where sexual aggression against males remained par for the course.

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According to Guillermo, there had been a recent increase in reports of people being grabbed by armed assailants in Darien and forced to remove all of their clothing for manual inspection of bodily orifices to ensure that nothing of value was found. Wasn’t even tucked away. Often, the women were then separated from the group and raped.

In Meteti, I also talked to a young Venezuelan woman – we’ll call her Alicia – whose two-year-old son threw foam balls at me and twitched my nose during our conversation, distracted by a cartoon about velociraptors between being

Alicia spent 10 days crossing Darren, she told me, and every night she cried. She had not been raped, but she had heard of many rapes, and she had seen a lot of death – such as the slumped body of an old man under a tree that “looked like it was cold”. She met a woman in Haiti whose six-month-old child had just drowned. She was robbed of her pups 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 “violent” 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, Derengap pretty much qualifies as a continuing violation.

But the Darien Gap is not the only trajectory where asylum seekers have to endure brutal and often sexual violations of their dignity. Around the world, we humans have demonstrated a sadistic knack for exploiting the vulnerable on the move – people whose status as “migrants” usually has a lot to do with the fact that they are already Suffered a lot in life.

Take Libya, a primary point of departure for refugees fleeing war and economic distress to Europe, which has hosted all forms of rape, slavery and torture, including asylum-seeking children. Try as the West might pin responsibility for the entire sinister system on the occasional fantasy of African barbarism, the reality is that the blame lies at the foot of Fortress Europe.

Meanwhile, in northern Mexico, bipartisan xenophobic US policy has put countless asylum seekers directly into the hands of rapists and kidnappers. and the site of Australia’s preferred offshore asylum “processing” center on the island of Nauru, a 2020 report published jointly by the Refugee Council of Australia and the Refugee Resource Center noted: “Over the years, there have been tragic cases of rape and sexual exploitation of women in Nauru, including those paid to protect them”.

Speaking of alleged “protection,” Panamanian officials have now come under fire in connection with allegations of sexual and other abuse at migrant reception centers in Darien province. Pardon my disappointment at the prospects of justice.

During my stay in the Darien region, I also spoke with Marilene Osinalde, MSF’s mental health manager in Meteti, who regularly sees patients experiencing sexual and other violence. He remarked to me that, while there is a persistent Western stereotype of rapists as “psychopaths who grab you on the street at night”, the phenomenon is more complex.

In the case of the Darien Gap and other migratory trajectories, she explained, the landscape of sexual aggression against people crossing it has to do with power, status and impunity, as well as marking territory. The use of rape as a “weapon” in Darien also objectifies and dehumanises the migrant “other”, she said, further reinforcing power structures.

Zoom out from Darien, and we find ourselves in a world of borders that dehumanize and criminalize asylum seekers and other underprivileged, all in the interest of marking territory and reinforcing power structures. The US freely enters international borders and builds its own fortifications – and converts places like the Darien 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 the right to control the boundaries of their bodies. And this is really a violation of humanity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

Rape as a weapon of war against asylum seekers

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