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Unprecedented child migration crisis across Latin America and Caribbean

Children in the region driven from their homes by gang violence, instability, poverty and climate change represent around 25 per cent of migrants said UNICEF – almost double the global average of 13 per cent.

“More and more children are on the move, of an increasingly young age, often alone and from diverse countries of origin, including from as far away as Africa and Asia,” said Garry Conille, UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean Director.

“When they cross several countries and sometimes the entire region, disease and injury, family separation and abuse may plague their journeys and, even if they make it to their destination, their futures often remain at risk.”

Shocking numbers

Along the dangerous Darien jungle route alone, at least 29,000 children made the crossing in 2021, followed by an estimated 40,000 last year.

In just the first eight months of 2023, more than 60,000 children have made the trek, half of them under five – the highest number on record for a single year.

This trend is mirrored at the southern border of the United States, where authorities recorded over 83,000 children entering the country in the first seven months of fiscal year 2023, which runs from October the previous year to September.

In fiscal years 2022 and 2021, over 155,000 and 149,000 children crossings were recorded, respectively.

Child migrants crossing a river in Panama.
© UNICEF

Child migrants crossing a river in Panama.

Root causes and challenges

According to UNICEF, the root causes of the crisis range from widespread poverty and job opportunities, to structural inequality, food insecurity and accelerating climate change.

Disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes have further exacerbated internal displacement in the region and lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Migrant children also face grave physical risks. In 2022, at least 92 migrant children died or went missing due to natural hazards, violence, exploitation and abuse.

The dangers are amplified by limited access to healthcare, nutrition and protection services, especially for the most vulnerable, including children with disabilities, children identifying as LGBTQI+ and those from indigenous groups.

Response

UNICEF is actively working with partners and governments along migration routes to provide accurate information, promote safe migration and offer lifesaving assistance to children and families.  

To address this unfolding crisis, the agency is appealing for $160.5 million to meet the needs of refugees and migrant children in several Latin American and Caribbean countries, including Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, and others.

It is also calling for $142.3 million to support children and families on the migration route across Central America and Mexico in 2023. However, as of August, both appeals are less than a quarter funded.

UNICEF also urged Member States to mobilize a better regional approach, invest in countries of origin, expand safe migration pathways, and strengthen child-sensitive border and reception processes.

“The unprecedented scale of the child migration crisis in Latin America and the Caribbean urgently requires a stronger humanitarian response as well as the expansion of safe and regular migration pathways for children and families to help protect their rights and their futures, no matter where they are from,” said Mr. Conille.

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