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Child Migration Through Darien Increased by 40 percent in 2024


child migration Darien
Child migration increased by 40 percent through the Darien area in the first months of 2024, exacerbating the plight of migrants – Credit: Unicef Ecuador / CC BY 2.0 Deed

Child migration through the Panamanian Darien increased by 40 percent in the first four months of 2024. This reality points to the fact that last year’s record will be surpassed again in December, something that has been happening since 2019, according to a United Nations report.

Projections point to more than 800,000 people crossing the dangerous border region between Colombia and Panama this year, of whom 160,000 will be children, compared to 113,000 in 2023, according to Unicef estimates. A large number of these migrants will be Venezuelans aiming to reach the southern border of the United States.

The drama of Darien for children and adults

El Darien is a jungle area with no significant state presence, both on the Colombian and Panamanian sides. The proliferation of criminal groups that assault migrants is common in the area. In this regard, reports of sexual assaults have skyrocketed in recent years, a worrying reality that poses a challenge for the protection of child migrants in the Darien.

Nevertheless, the flow of people fleeing poverty and violence in their countries does not cease. Willing to risk their lives, and those of their families, hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing Venezuela and Caribbean and Central American countries with the aim of reaching the United States.

The recently elected president of Panama, Jose Raul Mulino, promised in his campaign to “close the Darien”, but he did not specify how to close a jungle with rough and difficult terrain that, in fact, is the only break in the Pan-American highway in all its continental length. The control by authorities is so weak that during the past year, it was reported that criminal groups charged up to 150 dollars to allow passage.

For migration experts, the patterns of migrants have changed in recent years, from the profile of the young man leaving his country in search of better opportunities and livelihoods, to entire families moving north, which complicates mobility and increases the drama. Some of the migrants report seeing bodies of dead children on the roads to Panama.

child migration Darien
Panama’s president-elect promised in his campaign that he would close the Darien Pass – Credit: / @JoseRauMulino

Insufficient humanitarian care for the crisis

The presence of some NGOs and Unicef in the area has been able to address some emergency situations, but it is not enough. “We have never seen so many children crossing the Panama jungle alone or with their parents,” Garry Conille, Unicef’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, said last year.

“In the region, many children are not just crossing a border; they are moving between countries in extreme conditions. As these numbers continue to rise, governments of countries of origin, transit and destination, civil society organizations, and international organizations need to work together to ensure that the rights of each and every child are protected along the route,” added Conille, who was prime minister of Haiti twelve years ago and has first-hand knowledge of humanitarian crises.

For the Unicef representative, access to basic services such as safe water and sanitation, food and medical services are insufficient. Although transportation has been reactivated, the high number of daily arrivals exceeds the capacity to guarantee adequate conditions for children and their families, as well as an orderly and safe flow in the countries along the migratory route.

child migration Darien
Darien Gap is a vast jungle between Colombia and Panama that has historically hindered mobility – Credit: Milenioscuro / CC BY-SA 4.0

The Darien, a rainforest turned into an escape route

The Darien Gap, a vast stretch of tropical rainforest spanning parts of Panama and Colombia, has for centuries been a true obstacle for both nature and humanity. This approximately 160-kilometer expanse of dense forests and impassable swamps is not only a geographical marvel but also a silent witness to the region’s history.

The history of Darien dates back to pre-Columbian times when it was inhabited by various indigenous groups, including the Embera and the Wounaan, who still reside in the region and maintain their ancestral traditions. These peoples adapted to life in the jungle, developing a symbiotic relationship with their natural surroundings.

The arrival of Europeans in the 16th century brought explorations and the founding of Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien by Vasco Nuñez de Balboa in 1510, the first Spanish city on the American mainland. However, diseases, the hostile environment, and conflicts with indigenous peoples led to the abandonment of this settlement within a few years.

Throughout the 20th century, Darién became a symbol of nature’s intransigence against modernization projects. Repeated attempts to build a Pan-American highway through this region failed, halting any effort to connect the entire Americas by land from Alaska to Argentina.

Today, the Darien Gap remains a refuge of biodiversity, home to unique flora and fauna, but also a dangerous migration corridor. For some, it has become a place of horror and death, while for others, a path to a better life. Its history of resilience and mystery continues to fascinate explorers, scientists, and adventurers; it stands as an example of nature’s ability to prevail against human intervention.

child migration Darien
Aerial view of the Darien jungle region – Credit: Torrenegra / CC BY 2.0 Deed

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