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Surge in child migrants crossing the dangerous Darién Gap: UNICEF

In the first four months of 2024, more than 30,000 children traversed the dense jungle region separating Colombia and Panama, marking a significant increase compared to the same period last year. Among them, about 2,000 were unaccompanied or separated from their families.

Additionally, the number of children in transit grew five-times faster than the number of adults, the data showed.

No place for children

The Darién Gap is no place for children. Many children have died on this arduous, dangerous journey. Women have given birth while en route, bringing new life into the world in the most challenging of circumstances. Many of those who survive the journey arrive sick, hungry, and dehydrated, often with wounds or infections and in desperate need of support,” said Ted Chaiban, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director.

But with children making up a fifth of the migrants, UNICEF’s presence and response is more important than ever, he stressed.

“Adequate funding is critical in order to allow us to be there for children, no matter their country of origin or destination.”

Based on current trends, it is estimated that 800,000 people, including 160,000 children and adolescents, could cross the jungle in 2024. These migrants will likely require substantial humanitarian assistance due to the extreme conditions faced during the journey.

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Harrowing stories

Returning from a visit to the community of Bajo Chiquito in Panama, Mr. Chaiban recounted harrowing stories he heard from children who made the journey.

“I met Esmeria, an 11-year-old girl from Venezuela who [was] separated from her mother during the crossing through the jungle. Through tears, Esmeria shared with me how difficult it was for her to be alone in the jungle,”

The little girl had to cross swollen rivers, passing injured and hungry people on the route.

“At night, she told me, it was very dark and she heard scary noises. Esmeria was hungry. She had not eaten in two days. Esmeria had not studied for months, and she hoped that her mother would arrive soon to follow their path. No child should have to live through or witness these things,” the UNICEF official added.

Supporting children on the move

UNICEF has been providing support to children on the move in the Darién and Panama since 2018, when just 522 children crossed the rainforest.

Today, with financial backing from donors and with its own funds, the UN agency delivers crucial services in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), child protection, health, and gender-based violence, at key points along the migration route.

They also support host communities that migrants pass through.

Funds needed

In 2024, UNICEF has appealed for $7.64 million to address the urgent needs of the growing number of migrating children and families in Panama. However, only 10 per cent of this funding has been received so far.

Commending the host communities, donors and the Panamanian Government for helping support children and their families, Mr. Chaiban appealed for additional funds.

The dangers to children and their unmet needs are increasing as we speak. We need to continue to ensure that no child is left behind. If the response is underfunded, the reach will be limited,” he stressed.

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