The number of children who cross the Darien Gap jungle, which is one of the most dangerous places for migrants attempting to reach North America, has hit an all-time high, said the United Nations (UN) Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on Monday.
So far this year, almost 19,000 migrant children have journeyed on foot through the Darien Gap that separates Colombia and Panama, nearly three times more than the number registered over the five previous years combined, said UNICEF in a press release.
More than one-fifth of the migrants crossing the border between Colombia and Panama are children. Half of them are below the age of 5, it said.
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 diarrhea, respiratory diseases, dehydration and other ailments that require immediate attention, said UNICEF.
In 2021, at least five 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 jungle, sexual violence is increasingly and intentionally used by criminal gangs as an instrument of terror.
Between January and September 2021, UNICEF said it registered 29 reports of sexual abuse of adolescent girls during the journey. Many more women have reported sexual abuse.
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, said UNICEF.
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.
UNICEF called 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. -Xinhua