Migrants walk through the jungle near the end of their journey through the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama AFP

Panama's government on Sunday accused international aid groups of encouraging illegal migration by handing out maps to help those crossing the treacherous Darien Gap jungle.

The comments come amid a spat between the government and medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which last month criticized a sharp rise in sexual violence against migrants making the dangerous trek on their way to the United States.

In response, the government suspended MSF's humanitarian work in the jungle and accused it of failing to share data on alleged victims of sexual violence.

"International organizations give (migrants) maps on how to cross the jungle, knowing they are going to be raped, they are going to be robbed. It is extremely irresponsible," said director of migration Samira Gozaine, in a video posted on X.

In late February, MSF reported an "extreme" level of brutality against migrants crossing the jungle and urged Panamanian authorities to redouble efforts to protect the most vulnerable people "on their territory."

In just one week in February, the NGO said, it had treated 113 people, including nine children, who had been sexually assaulted by criminal groups operating in the lawless Darien Gap.

"If they have that information, the first thing they should do responsibly, and legally, is provide pertinent complaints with pertinent evidence, which they have not done," Gozaine said.

Last week, MSF said it was "forced to suspend all medical activity for the migrant population in the Darien by order of the Panamanian authorities."

It said the government cited the lack of a valid "collaboration agreement" with the health ministry to operate in Panama.

The NGO said it had been trying in vain to renew the agreement since October 2023.

MSF says it provides medical and psychological care to about 5,000 people a month, with a focus on survivors of sexual violence.

Despite its dangers, the 165-mile (265-kilometer) Darien Gap has become a key corridor for migrants hoping to reach the United States.

They face treacherous terrain, wild animals and violent criminal gangs that extort, kidnap and abuse them.

A little over two months into this year, 82,000 people are known to have crossed the Darien: mainly Venezuelans but also Haitians, Ecuadorans, Colombians and Chinese, according to official data.

In 2023, a record 520,000 people crossed through the Darien.