By Benedict Mayaki, SJ
The UN Children’s Fund has expressed concern over the increasing number of migrant children who cross the Darien Gap – the jungle that separates Colombia and Panama – on their way toward the United States.
UNICEF said that the numbers have reached an all-time high, as almost 19,000 migrant children have journeyed through the dangerous territory so far this year. This number represents nearly three times more than the number registered over the five previous years combined.
More so, more than 1 in 5 migrants crossing the border between Colombia and Panama are children, half of them below the age of five, UNICEF said.
Migrants holding more than 50 nationalities from as far as Africa and South Asia use the Darien Gap route on their way to the US – often unaccompanied. Half of the migrants are from Haiti, many of whom have children born in Chile or Brazil.
In a statement, UNICEF said that migrant families trying to make it through the dense tropical forest are often exposed to violence, “including sexual abuse, trafficking and extortion from criminal gangs.”
Sexual violence is increasing an instrument of terror used by criminal gangs in the Darien jungle, UNICEF noted, adding that between January and September, the UN agency had registered “29 reports of sexual abuse of adolescent girls during the journey” amid other reports from many more women.
For children, the dangers are even more acute, as this year alone, at least 5 children have been found dead in the jungle and more than 150 children have arrived in Panama without their parents, including some newborn babies – a nearly 20 – time increase compared to 2020.
Migrant children are also at increased risk of getting diarrhoea, respiratory diseases, dehydration and other ailments that require medical attention.
Jean Gough, UNICEF regional director for Latin American and the Caribbean said that “deep in the jungle, robbery, rape and human trafficking are as dangerous as wild animals, insects and the absolute lack of safe drinking water. Week after week, more children are dying, losing their parents or getting separated from their relatives while on this perilous journey."
“Each child crossing the Darien Gap on foot is a survivor,” Gough added.
In the face of the situation, UNICEF calls on governments to ensure the protection of children on the move throughout their journey and for efforts to be made to promote the integration of migrant families into host communities.
As the number of migrant children and familes in the Darien Gap is projected to further increase in coming weeks and months, UNICEF is also taking steps to scale up its humanitarian response to address the needs of the children and families on the move.
In Colombia, the UN agency and its partners are helping with water, sanitation and hygiene services to migrant children, especially those separated from their parents. They also assist in referring children who were subjected to violence to local protection services.
Similarly, in Panama, UNICEF and its partners are providing psychosocial support and health services to migrant chidren, and they also assist with distributing water and hygiene kits to migrant adolescent girls and women at reception centres.