HomeMiddle EastRape as a weapon of war against asylum seekers

Rape as a weapon of war against asylum seekers

The first time I spoke to survivors of the Darien Gap – the notoriously deadly stretch of jungle on the Colombia-Panama border – was in 2021 during my brief imprisonment in the 21st centurythe largest immigration detention center in Mexico, located in the Mexican state of Chiapas, near the border with Guatemala.

I was the only detainee from the United States, the same country responsible for Mexico’s immigration crackdown in the first place, and I had ended up in the migrant jail purely because of my own stupidity and laziness in renewing my tourist visa. My fellow prisoners were facing far greater existential problems, and many of them, from Haiti, Cuba, Bangladesh, and beyond, had been forced to cross the Darien Gap as they fled political and economic calamity in the hope of finding refuge in the US.

Within the walls of Siglo XXI, where dreams of refuge had been suspended indefinitely, the Darien was a recurring topic of conversation, a kind of spontaneous exercise in group therapy, it seemed. The women counted the many corpses they had found during their travels. It was clear that rape was rampant in the jungle, to the point that even those who were not personally assaulted were vicariously traumatized.

In fact, in this forest, the densest and most impenetrable, sexual violence against asylum seekers has been institutionalized. This violence can be perpetrated by local inhabitants, paramilitaries or a variety of criminal actors whose activities are allowed 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 limb to do so, as that is the obscene and arbitrary privilege conferred by a passport from the US, a country known for stirring up trouble around the world and then militarizing its borders against anyone you want. to escape the mess.

In the town of Metetí, in the province of Darién, I spoke with Tamara Guillermo, a field coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF), who expressed her horror at the “level of brutality” and the extreme “cruelty” that It is currently on display in the jungle, where sexual assault, even against men, remained par for the course.

According to Guillermo, there has been a recent increase in reports of people being held by armed assailants in the Darién and forced to remove all clothing for a manual inspection of body orifices, to ensure nothing of value had been taken. far. Often the women were 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, while we were 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 of many rapes and had seen many deaths, such as the hunched body of an old man under a tree who “seemed to be cold.” She had met a Haitian woman whose six-month-old baby had just drowned. She had her puppy and then all valuables not hidden in her son’s diapers stolen when a group of 10 hooded men descended on her group.

In Spanish, the verb “violar” can mean both “violate” –as in human rights– and “violate”. And while Alicia may not have been physically raped in the last sense, DariénGap pretty much qualifies as continuous rape.

But the Darien Gap is not the only trajectory in which refugee claimants must endure the brutal and often sexual violation of their dignity. All over the world, we humans have shown a sadistic knack for exploiting vulnerable people on the move, people whose status as “migrants” often has a lot to do with the fact that they’ve already suffered a lot in life.

For example, Libya, a major departure point for Europe-bound refugees fleeing war and economic misery, which has been the site of all kinds of rape, slavery and torture -including those of refugee-seeking children. As much as the West tries to pin the responsibility for the whole sinister arrangement on the ever-useful fantasy of African savagery, the reality is that the blame lies right at the foot of Fortress Europe.

Meanwhile, in northern Mexico, the US’s bipartisan xenophobic policy has put countless asylum seekers directly into the hands of rapists and kidnappers. and on the island of NauruAustralia’s favorite overseas asylum “processing” center site, 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 the rape and sexual abuse of women on Nauru, including by those who pay to protect them.”

Speaking of supposed “protection”, Panamanian authorities have now come under fire for allegations of sexual and other abuse at migrant reception centers in the Darién province. Forgive me my pessimism regarding 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 sees patients who have suffered sexual and other types of violence. She told me that while there is a persistent Western stereotype of rapists as “psychopaths who grab you on the street at night,” the phenomenon is far more complex.

In the case of the Darién Gap and other migratory trajectories, he explained, the panorama of sexual assault against people who cross it has to do with the affirmation of power, status and impunity, as well as the marking of territory. The use of rape as a “weapon” in the Darién also reifies and dehumanizes the migrant “Other,” he said, further solidifying power structures.

If we move away from the Darién, we find ourselves in a world of borders that dehumanizes and criminalizes refugee claimants and other dispossessed, all in the interest of marking territory and reinforcing power structures. The United States penetrates international borders at will while strengthening its own and turning spaces like the Darien 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.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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