Child migration through the Darien Gap up 40 per cent so far this year

UNICEF estimates 160,000 children could cross the route this year, up 34 per cent from 113,000 in 2023

15 May 2024
Niños y niñas migrantes en el la estación de Lajas Blancas en el Darién comparten con Ted Chaiban, Director Ejecutivo Adjunto de UNICEF

PANAMA CITY, 15 May 2024 – An increase in the number of children migrating through the dangerous Darien Gap so far this year puts the route on track for a fifth consecutive year of record levels 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.

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. Many of those who survive the journey arrive sick, hungry, and dehydrated, often with wounds or infections and in desperate need of support,” said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Ted Chaiban. “But with children making up a fifth of those making this journey, UNICEF’s presence and response is more important than ever. Adequate funding is critical in order to allow us to be there for children, no matter their country of origin or destination.”

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.

“The stories we hear from children and parents who have made the journey are incredibly harrowing,” said Chaiban. “During my visit last month to the community of Bajo Chiquito, I met Esmeira, an 11-year-old girl from Venezuela who separated from her mother during the crossing through the jungle. Through tears, Esmeira shared with me how difficult it was for her to be alone in the jungle. She had to cross swollen rivers, pass injured and hungry people on the route, and at night, she told me, it was very dark and she heard scary noises. Esmeria was hungry. She had not eaten in two days. Esmeria had not studied for months, and she hoped that her mother would arrive soon to follow their path. No child should have to live through or witness these things.

UNICEF staff have been supporting children on the move in the Darien and in Panama since 2018, when 522 children and adolescents crossed the rainforest. With financial support from the United States Government and the European Union, as well as with its own funding, UNICEF delivers services at hotspots along the migration route in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), child protection, case management, child and maternal health, and gender-based violence. Actions also includes support to ten host communities that migrants pass through.

In 2024, UNICEF appealed for US$7.64 million to address the urgent needs of the growing numbers of children and families on the move in Panama. Currently, only 10 per cent of this new funding has been received.

“I commend the host communities, donors, and the government of Panama for helping to provide essential services to children on the move and their families, ensuring that they will not be abandoned,” said Chaiban. “The dangers to children and their unmet needs are increasing as we speak. We need to continue to ensure that no child is left behind. If the response is underfunded, the reach will be limited.”



Note to the editors

Latin America and the Caribbean is home to one of the most complex child migration situations. Migration flows are multidirectional and interconnected, with many countries acting as places of origin, transit and destination all at once. Several hotspots are examples of multi-directional and interconnected migration, including the Darien Gap.

Back in 2018, UNICEF was the first and only humanitarian actor present in the Darien province, when 522 children and adolescents had crossed the migration route. In 2019, the flow increased, and 3,956 children were registered. After the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2021, the figures reached 29,645 children. 2022 experienced an exponential rise, up to 40,438 children.

The situation continued to worsen: the decision to migrate led 113,180 children to cross the riskiest path in the world in 2023, out of 520,085 registered migrants from over 100 nationalities, according to the Panama National Migration Service.

Media contacts

Sendai Zea
Communication Specialist (Emergencies)
UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean
Tel: +507 6821 0843
Giacomo Colarullo
Communication Officer
Tel: +1 718 791 8245

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