Seven-fold increase in the number of children walking through the Panamanian jungle towards North America this year

30 March 2023
Lajas Blancas Migrant Reception Station, Darien, Panama, February 2023. Loida, a case manager, ensures that children receive support in Lajas Blancas. UNICEF and its partner RET provide support to children and adolescents with special protection needs.
UNICEF/UN0793524

PANAMA CITY, 30 March 2023 - The number of children crossing the dangerous Darien jungle between Colombia and Panama by foot has increased seven-fold in the first two months of 2023 compared to the same period last year, UNICEF warned today.

In January and February of this year, close to 9,700 children have crossed the Darien Gap towards North America. Most are expected to make their way toward the United States.

The figure is the highest number ever recorded in a two-month period. During the same period last year, less than 1,400 were registered by Panamanian authorities.

Children now represent 1 in 5 migrants walking through the Darien jungle and are the fastest growing group among people fleeing their homes under the threat of violence or migrating in search of better opportunities.

Additionally, the number of unaccompanied or separated children continues to grow. In the first two months of 2023, UNICEF estimates that an average of five children arrived alone in Panama every day or at least 200 so far this year. Last year UNICEF registered less than 40 unaccompanied or separated children in the same period. Unaccompanied children are particularly vulnerable to violence, abuse, and exploitation.

“Our teams on the ground had never seen such a skyrocketing number of children crossing the Panama jungle on their own or with their parents,” said Garry Conille, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean from Panama City.  “UNICEF is increasing its humanitarian assistance in support to the Government of Panama’s response. However, ensuring access to water, child and maternal health and protection services for all children is getting more complicated week after week. If current trends continue, the number of migrant children passing through Panama this year will far exceed the total registered last year.”

More than 6,500 people, including about 1,300 children, were left stranded in host communities and Temporary Migrant Reception Stations in Darien (Panama) when the authorities temporarily suspended the transit of migrants from border to border after a lethal bus accident in February. As a result, the shelter capacity in Darien (Panama) was sometimes exceeded by as much as 600 per cent. Today, access to basic services such as drinking water, hygiene, food and medical attention remain insufficient. Although transportation services have been reactivated, the high number of daily entries exceed the capacity to guarantee proper conditions for children and their families, as well as orderly and safe migration flow in the countries along the migration route.

In Colombia, Panama and the rest of Central America, UNICEF and its partners are providing lifesaving and long-term assistance to migrant children, pregnant women and families, in addition to the communities impacted by migration. UNICEF-supported interventions include psychosocial support and child protection, case management, child and maternal health, access to water, sanitation and hygiene services and services to prevent and respond to gender-based violence.

“In Latin America and the Caribbean, many children are not just crossing one border, they are moving across several countries under extreme circumstances. And as these numbers continue to increase, governments from countries of origin, transit, and destination; civil society organizations; and international organizations need to work together to ensure the rights of each and every child are protected throughout the journey,” added Conille.  

UNICEF calls on host governments to strengthen their response to increasing child migration flows and on donors and partners to assign additional flexible funds to better respond to the growing needs of children and women in hosting communities and migrant families, in order to:

  • Maintain and improve the provision of critical services such as water, child and maternal health, protection, food, and shelter;
  • Strengthen cross-border coordination mechanisms to guarantee the rights of children on the move;
  • Increase security measures during transit to ensure the safety and protection of children at all times;
  • Strengthen institutional capacity to establish long-term response plans taking the specific needs of migrant children into account.

Media contacts

Tess Ingram
UNICEF New York
Tel: +1 934 867 7867
Laurent Duvillier
UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean
Tel: + 507 6169 9886

Additional resources

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

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