Migrants waiting for a bus in San Vicente. Panama, May 2022
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Deplorable reception conditions for refugees crossing the Darien Jungle

On Monday, May 23, 2022

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MSF has been working in the region since May 2021 and now provides medical and mental health care in the San Vicente migrant reception centre, one of the first communities to emerge from the Darién jungle. More than 134,000 people arrived in Panama via this route in 2021.

"The reception conditions for migrants are inadequate," said Rabia Ben Ali, MSF project coordinator in Panama.

"Every day, hundreds of people arrive in Canaán Membrillo, the first village they find in Panama after crossing the dangerous Darién jungle. They receive no medical care. They then take a three-hour boat ride to San Vicente where services are inadequate and barely meet international standards".

Migrants in a tent in San Vicente. Panama

The lack of access to medical care in the village of Canaán Membrillo has serious consequences for the health of migrants, who are often victims of violence or serious illness. For victims of sexual violence, receiving prompt medical care is essential, especially to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and infections or to receive emergency contraception.

"In the jungle, I was robbed and raped. You see dead people, decapitated. I reported it when they took me to the migrant reception centre," says a 47-year-old woman. 

"The Panamanian authorities should urgently set up a reception centre in Canaán Membrillo and protective measures to prevent attacks on migrants along the route between Colombia and Panama," says Rabia Ben Ali. 

"The conditions of the reception facilities in San Vicente also need to be improved.

In San Vicente, few shelters are available for migrants.

It has rained a lot in the last few days and we have been sleeping in tents on the ground. Our son got sick and coughed a lot because the water got into the tent. Here, if the children don't get the flu, they get diarrhoea. This is not a place where we can live," says Joseph, 25, who arrived in Panama with his wife and 15-month-old son.

Some of the migrant shelters do not have adequate floors, so water seeps in. Yet migrants have to sleep on the floor.
In San Vicente, the lack of drinking water and sufficient showers are common complaints among migrants.

In April, MSF teams treated an average of 78 patients a day, mainly for skin diseases, muscle pain, diarrhoea, respiratory infections and digestive diseases. The MSF mental health team treated an average of six patients per day. They were suffering from acute stress, depression or anxiety, mainly due to the death of a family member during the trip.

After a slight drop in the number of arrivals at the beginning of the year, the number of arrivals increased again in March and April, as did the number of victims of theft or sexual violence.

MSF treated 89 cases of sexual violence this year.

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