2021 records highest ever number of migrant children crossing the Darien jungle towards the US

UNICEF/UN0433685/Moreno Gonzalez
Maleyles (3) playing at the UNICEF-supported child-friendly space in Migrant Reception Station in San Vicente, Darien, Panama on 24 March 2021

The number of migrant children who cross the Darien Gap on foot has hit an all-time high, UNICEF warned today. The Darien Gap, a jungle that separates Colombia and Panama, is one of the most dangerous places for migrants attempting to reach North America.

Almost 19,000 migrant children have journeyed through the Darien Gap so far this year, nearly three times more than the number registered over the five previous years combined. More than 1 in 5 migrants crossing the border between Colombia and Panama are children. Half of them are below the age of five. 

In this dense tropical forest, migrant families with children are particularly exposed to violence, including sexual abuse, trafficking and extortion from criminal gangs. Children who cross the Darien Gap are also at risk of getting diarrhoea, respiratory diseases, dehydration and other ailments that require immediate attention.

“Each child crossing the Darien Gap on foot is a survivor,” said Jean Gough, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “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. It’s appalling that criminal groups are taking advantage of these children when they are the most vulnerable.” 

In 2021, at least 5 children were found dead in the jungle. Since the beginning of this year, 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. 

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.

“Never before have our teams on the ground seen so many young children crossing the Darien Gap –often unaccompanied. Such a fast-growing influx of children heading north from South America should urgently be treated as a serious humanitarian crisis by the entire region, beyond Panama,” Gough said. 

Migrants holding more than 50 nationalities from as far afield as Africa and South Asia, are using this route on their way to the United States. Half of the migrants are from Haiti; many of whom have children born in Chile or Brazil. 

In Colombia, UNICEF and partners are helping with water, sanitation and hygiene services, particularly in the pier areas of Necocli 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.

In Panama, UNICEF and its partners are providing psychosocial support and health services to migrant children, especially those who have been separated from their parents. Our teams are also assisting in referring children who were subjected to violence to local protection services.

Together with the Panama government, UNICEF is distributing water every day to 1,000 people and hygiene kits to migrant adolescent girls and women at the three migrant reception centres in Bajo Chiquito, Lajas Blancas and San Vicente.

As the number of migrant children and families in the Darien Gap is expected to further increase in the next weeks and months, UNICEF is scaling up its humanitarian response to address the urgent needs of children and families on the move in Panama and Colombia.

With the support of the U.S. State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) and the European Commission Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), our teams and partners on the ground are ramping up the provision of critical services such as access to health, water, hygiene and sanitation, protection, psychosocial support and nutrition.

UNICEF calls on governments to ensure the protection of children on the move throughout their journey and coordinate the rollout of a more robust humanitarian response across all countries involved. The integration of migrant families into host communities should be promoted and the root causes that lead them to migrate should be addressed.