The number of migrant children who cross the Darien Gap on foot has hit an all-time high, UNICEF warned today. The Darien Gap is an extensive and inhospitable strip of tropical forest that divides Panama and Colombia, considered one of the most dangerous places for migrants attempting to reach North America.
On their trek north towards the U.S., some 19,000 migrant children have crossed The Darien Gap so far this year, the UN children’s agency UNICEF said Monday.
The number of children who crossed the Darien Gap is almost three times higher than the total for the previous five years, UNICEF said in a statement.
The UNICEF said: One in five migrants crossing the border are children, and half of them is under five years old.
It said: In 2021, at least five children were found dead in the jungle. “More than 150 children arrived in Panama without their parents, some of them are newborn babies – a nearly 20-time increase compared to last year.”
The UN agency said 109 children were recorded crossing the area in 2017, and two years later, the figure increased to 3,956. In 2020, it dropped to 1,653 due to restrictions derived from the pandemic, which slowed the migratory flow.
Five children have been found dead in 2021, while another 150, including some newborns, arrived in Panama without their parents, according UNICEF.
The agency also warned that girls and adolescents are especially vulnerable to sexual violence in the Darien jungle. Twenty-nine complaints of sexual abuse were filed between January and September.
Migrant children sometimes travel with relatives or in the hands of human smugglers.
Children who cross the Darien Gap are at risk of getting diarrhoea, respiratory diseases, dehydration and other ailments that require immediate attention.
Children crossing the Darien usually arrive in Panama with gastrointestinal illnesses due to untreated water or with respiratory ailments after spending days in the humid jungle, sleeping in the open and crossing rivers. On the Panamanian side, organizations such as UNICEF provide health services and support.
In the Darien jungle, sexual violence is increasingly and intentionally used by criminal gangs as an instrument of terror. Between January and September 2021, UNICEF registered 29 reports of sexual abuse of adolescent girls during the journey. Many more women have reported sexual abuse.
“The rapid growth in the influx of children heading north from South America should be urgently treated as a serious humanitarian crisis throughout the region, beyond Panama,” Jean Gough, UNICEF director for Latin America and the Caribbean, said in a statement.
Jean Gough said: “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.”
UNICEF said: Migrants of more than 50 nationalities – from Africa, South Asia and South America – have crossed the area.
In early 2021, Panamanian authorities had warned of a possible crisis after opening the borders that had for months been closed because of the pandemic.
By September, the immigration authorities of the Central American nation reported a record number of 91,305 migrants who entered from neighboring Colombia. Of these, 56,676 were Haitians and 12,870 Cubans.
Migrants move along trails, exposing themselves to drug gangs and assailants, as well as wildlife and rivers.
Some 20,000 other migrants, many of them in families, are still waiting their turn to cross the Darien Gap, paused in Necoclí, a small coastal town in Colombia. Some of them stay in hotels while others spend nights under tents on the beach.
In Colombia, UNICEF and partners are helping with water, sanitation and hygiene services, particularly in the pier areas of Necoclí where over 1,000 people, including children, are awaiting transportation alternatives into Panama. UNICEF is also working with local authorities to identify unaccompanied and separated children through mobile units.
According to the UNICEF, In 2019, 33 million children were international migrants, 1 in 8 international migrants is a child, and refugee children are 5 times more likely to be out of school than other children.
In Mexico, Hundreds of U.S.-bound Migrants Found Packed in Trucks
Police in northern Mexico discovered more than 600 Central American migrants hiding in three long cargo trucks headed to the U.S. late on Thursday, in one of the biggest round-ups of U.S.-bound migrants by Mexican authorities in years.
Video released by police showed officers prying off a lock from a truck’s rear door and opening it only to find migrants in heavy coats and hoods huddled close together on the floor, nearly all of them wearing face masks.
Almost 200 of the 652 migrants found in the non-descript white refrigerated trucks were unaccompanied children and teens, the police said in a statement.
Waves of mostly Central American migrants as well as a recent surge of Haitians seeking entry into the U.S. have frustrated both U.S. and Mexican leaders determined to reduce the massive human flow fleeing poverty, violence and natural disasters in their home countries.
A security source told Reuters the migrants found in the trucks were almost 90% Guatemalans and had been transported to a nearby migrant center in Tamaulipas where their legal status would be reviewed. Hondurans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans and one migrant from Belize were also among those being processed, the source added.
The trucks were pulled over on a highway in the northern Gulf coast state of Tamaulipas, some 220 miles (350 km) south of McAllen, Texas, and near the sites of several gruesome migrant massacres in recent years blamed on drug gangs who fight over lucrative smuggling routes into the U.S.
Four other individuals were arrested by police, but it was not clear if they were suspected of being the smugglers.
The economic crises in Latin America and pandemic-related restrictions led more than 67,100 people, the majority of them Haitians, to cross the Darien Gap between January and August, according to the National Migration Service of Panama.
Most of the Haitian migrants come from Chile and Brazil, where they took refuge after the earthquake that devastated their home country in 2010, and many of the children who undertake the dangerous journey were born in those South American countries.
Now, they are trying to reach the U.S. despite the deportation of thousands of migrants in recent weeks.