UNICEF — The number of migrant children crossing the Darien Gap, a jungled portion of land separating Colombia from Central America, increased more than seven-fold to nearly 4,000 in 2019 from 522 the year before – UNICEF announced today.

Don Wesky (8 months) and Haitian caregiver at migrant shelter. Migrants describe the Darién Gap jungle, straddling the border between Colombia and Panama, as the most dangerous and most difficult stage of their journey to North America.

Approximately 50 % of the children were under 6 years old.

Migrants who crossed in 2019 hailed from more than 50 different countries including India, Somalia, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Bangladesh.

The findings are based on data from national migration services.

Janet (13 years old) and her family crossing the Tuquesa river towards Bajo Chiquito, the first panamanian village by the Colombian border, after a 7-day journey across the Darien Gap.

The UN children’s agency went on to warn of the grave risks facing migrant children and their families who make this perilous journey. Risks include no access to safe water, as well as exposure to natural hazards, dangerous animals, robbery, abuse and exploitation.

“The dramatic increase in the number of migrant children moving through the Darien Gap underscores the urgent need for action to protect these children and ensure their access to essential services such as healthcare, water and hygiene,” said UNICEF Representative for Panama Kyungsun Kim. “This requires coordinated and strengthened efforts from governments and humanitarian actors on the ground responding to the flow of children on the move and their needs.”

Migrant and host community children resting at UNICEF´s Child Friendly Space in migrant shelter.

Migrants arriving to Panama after crossing the Darien Gap are received at the Migrant Reception Station (ERM) shelter of La Peñita in Darien Province, one of the least developed provinces of Panama. They are then transported by Migration Authorities to the ERM of Los Planes in Chiriqui Province at the border with Costa Rica. Most will continue northwards, hoping to reach the U.S. or Canada.

Angolan brothers Romeu and Kulutwe and their families crossing the Tuquesa river towards Bajo Chiquito, the first Panamanian village by the Colombian border, after a 7 day journey across the Darien Gap.

UNICEF and its partners support national efforts to protect the rights of children on the move, while in transit through Panama. This work includes the development of local and national capacities while implementing the following interventions:

  • The provision of humanitarian supplies, nutritional screenings, pregnancy check-ups and healthcare for arriving migrants;
  • Installation of water systems bringing more than 30,000 liters of safe water per day for migrants, host communities, school and government institutions;
  • Support for improvement of sanitation conditions and hygiene practices; and
  • Establishment of child-friendly spaces where migrant and local children can play and receive psychosocial and early childhood development support, and where mothers can rest and breastfeed their babies safely.

As the number of migrant children crossing the Darien Gap is expected to rise, UNICEF will continue its presence on the ground – providing services in water and sanitation, health, and child protection for the remainder of 2020. This will help strengthen local and national capacities to respond to the needs of not only migrant children but also those who live in the host communities.

Children washing their hands at water supply system provided by UNICEF and partners at migrant shelter in La Peñita.

UNICEF urges governments and the international community to take immediate action to help protect all refugee and migrant children, including:

  1. Tackle the root causes driving children from their homes;
  2. Ensure access to education, healthcare and other essential services for all migrant children;
  3. Keep families together;
  4. End detention of migrant children and put in place alternative care measures;
  5. Eradicate xenophobia and discrimination; and
  6. Protect child migrants from exploitation and violence.
Bus leaving La Peñita in its way to Los Planes de Gualaca, Chiriqui Province, Panama (last migrant shelter before crossing the border to Costa Rica)

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