Surge in child migrants crossing Darien Gap

Darien Gap
Panama’s President-elect Jos Ral Mulino has said that he will shut down the migration route. Photo: AFP

• The number of minors crossing the treacherous jungle between Colombia and Panama known as the Darien Gap is on pace to rise by 34 per cent to reach 160,000 this year, the United Nations’ Children Fund (UNICEF) said.
• An increase in the number of children migrating through the dangerous Darien Gap so far this year puts the route on track for a record fifth consecutive year of child migration, according to UNICEF analysis.
• In the first four months of 2024, more than 30,000 children on the move crossed the Darien Gap, a 40 per cent increase compared to the same period last year.
• Child migration through the jungle of the Darien Gap has become a protracted crisis. 
• Based on the trends observed in the first four months and the regional context, it is estimated that 800,000 people, including 160,000 children and adolescents, could cross the jungle in 2024, with many likely to require critical humanitarian assistance.

• Of the 30,000 children on the move so far this year, nearly 2,000 of them were unaccompanied or separated from their families. 
• The number of unaccompanied and separated children tripled in comparison to the same period in 2023. The number of children in transit is also growing five-times faster than the number of adults.
• Panama’s President-elect Jos Ral Mulino has said that he will shut down the migration route. Until now, Panama has helped speedily bus the migrants across its territory so they can continue their journey north.

Migrants risk their lives to cross dangerous Darien Gap
• The Darien Gap is a dense and challenging tropical forest region that spans over 575,000 hectares along the border between Panama and Colombia. 
• Darien is a national park and World Heritage Site protected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).  
• The largest protected area in Panama, Darien is also among the largest and most valuable protected areas in Central America. The property includes a stretch of the Pacific Coast and almost the entire border with neighbouring Colombia.
• It contains an exceptional variety of habitats – sandy beaches, rocky coasts, mangroves, swamps, and lowland and highland tropical forests with an extensive wildlife. 
• Darien has become a treacherous route for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers attempting to travel from South America to North America.
• Many fall prey to people traffickers who exploit the desperation of migrants, forcing them to exorbitant sums of money.

• The harrowing trek involves climbing steep mountains and crossing dangerous waterways.
• Most on the move come from Venezuela, Haiti and Ecuador, as well as from other countries in South America and the Caribbean. Others come from further afield, including Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
• Migrants and refugees continue to make the dangerous journey across this roadless stretch of land separating South and Central America in search of safety and a better life. 
• The Darien 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. 
• Children account for a fifth of all people crossing the jungle.

• People crossing the Darien and other borders irregularly are exposed to grave dangers, such as natural hazards, sexual and gender-based violence, robbery, human trafficking, extortion and kidnapping.
• The criminals behind this highly profitable business — estimated to be worth $5-7 billion — seize the opportunity created by the need or desire of people to escape not just poverty and lack of employment but also natural disaster, conflict, or persecution.
• In 2023, the migration route was used by more than 500,000 people.
• 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.

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