In the first seven months of 2023, more than 60,000 children crossed the Darien Gap, a major migration route and treacherous stretch of jungle that connects South and Central America, more than any other year on record, said the UN’s Children Fund, UNICEF.
Younger children were making these dangerous journeys at an increasing rate, UNICEF added, with those under 11 years old now accounting for up to 91% of all children moving through key transit points in the region.
“More and more children are on the move, at an increasingly young age, often alone and from diverse countries of origin, including from as far away as Africa and Asia,” said Garry Conille, director of UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean.
“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.”
Globally, children make up around 13 per cent of the migrant population, but they account for 25 per cent of people on the move in Latin America and the Caribbean – the highest proportion in the world.
“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,” Conille said.
“Even if children make it to their destination, their futures often remain at risk.”
The trek across the Darién Gap, a stretch of remote, roadless, mountainous rainforest connecting South and Central America, is one of the most popular and perilous walks on earth.
The 66-mile (106-kilometer) hike brings migrants from Colombia to Panama and is a crucial passage for those hoping to reach the United States and Canada.
Almost 250,000 people made the crossing in 2022, fueled by economic and humanitarian disasters – nearly double the figures from the year before, and 20 times the annual average from 2010 to 2020.
The unprecedented movement of people in the Western Hemisphere has placed immense pressure on the Biden administration, which – despite rolling out a series of measures to stem migration – is still facing potentially thousands more people arriving at the US southern border this fall, placing a politically delicate issue at the forefront on the cusp of a presidential election.
Already, border officials are seeing an increasing number of daily encounters at the border compared to earlier this summer. In July, the number of families apprehended at the border – one of the most vulnerable populations – nearly doubled compared to June, raising concerns within the Biden administration.