Number of migrant children moving across Latin America and the Caribbean hits new record amid violence, instability and climate change

One in four people on the move in Latin America and the Caribbean is a child, the highest proportion globally

08 September 2023
UN0854849
UNICEF/UN0854849/Jose Daniel Urdaneta

PANAMA/NEW YORK, 7 September 2023 - Children are migrating through Latin America and the Caribbean in record numbers and now account for a larger share of the migrant population than other regions in the world, according to a UNICEF child alert issued today.

Record numbers of children are on the move via three major migration routes in Latin America and the Caribbean: through the Darién jungle between Colombia and Panama, outward migration from South America, and at key transit points in northern Central America and Mexico. The nature of migration in Latin America and the Caribbean Region has changed dramatically in the last decade.

“Gang violence, instability, poverty and climate-related events are, alarmingly, gripping the region and pushing more children from their homes,” said UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean Director, Garry Conille. “More and more children are on the move, of an increasingly young age, often alone and from diverse countries of origin, including from as far away as Africa and Asia. 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.”

At least 29,000 children made the perilous Darien crossing in 2021. An estimated 40,000 children made the crossing in 2022 and more than 60,000 children have crossed the Darien jungle in the first eight months of 2023, half of them below the age of 5, making it the year with the most child crossings on record. Meanwhile, the number of refugee and migrant children apprehended at the southern border of the United States has also been on the rise.

The United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recorded more than 149,000 children crossing in Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 and over 155,000 in FY 2022. In the first seven months of FY 2023, more than 83,000 children have entered the country according to the CBP. These trends are echoed in other, smaller migration flows across the region as increasing violence, instability and climate-related disasters result in more displacement and forced migration.

The proportion of children moving along major migration routes in Latin America and the Caribbean has also climbed to a record high in the past three years. Around the world, children make up 13 per cent of the migrant population, but in this region, about one in four people on the move (25 per cent) is a child, up from 19 per cent in 2019. This is only rivalled by Sub-Saharan Africa, where children also account for 25 per cent of the migrant population.

Increasingly, it is younger children who are making these perilous journeys, with those under 11 years now accounting for up to 91 per cent of all children on the move at some key transit points. This new reality poses challenges to national migration policies and humanitarian responses in countries of origin, transit and destination.

The physical risks along irregular migration routes are innumerable, especially for children. As well as the dangerous terrain they traverse – from jungles and rivers to railway lines and highways - children may also encounter violence, exploitation, and abuse.

“My favourite part was leaving the jungle because it’s a nightmare in there,” said Angela*, an 8-year-old girl who walked through the Darien jungle in 2022. During the journey, Angela and her 10-year-old sister were separated from their parents and wandered lost for two days before being reunited. The family traveled for more than 40 days to reach Guatemala before continuing to their destination.

The mixed migration flows in Latin America and the Caribbean are dynamic and often intersect; most countries are simultaneously points of origin, transit, destination, and return. This presents challenges and requires an integrated approach within the region to ensure migrant and refugee children and their families are protected and the root causes of forced migration are addressed.

UNICEF is working with partners and governments along migration routes to provide accurate information to promote safe migration, to offer lifesaving assistance and support children’s access to essential services. This includes helping countries prevent, detect and safeguard children from violence and assisting children and families who face hardship and exploitation on their migration journey.

UNICEF is appealing for US$160.5 million to meet the humanitarian needs of refugees and migrant children in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uruguay. As of August 2023, UNICEF has received less than 20 per cent (approximately US$32.5m) of its funding requirements. UNICEF is also appealing for US$142.31 million for children and families on the migration route across Central America and Mexico in 2023. As of August, UNICEF has received just 26 per cent of these much-needed funds.

“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.

UNICEF continues to urge United Nations Member States in the region to ensure the rights, safety, and well-being of migrant and refugee children, including by:

  • Mobilizing a regional approach to international protection and to address the child-specific root causes of migration, to build on the interconnected nature of migration movements and policy responses in the region.
  • Investing in countries of origin to improve access to services, prevent and respond to violence, and create education and livelihood opportunities for vulnerable children, young people, and families, and support children who continue their residence in the country of origin while their parents have migrated.
  • Expanding safe and regular migration pathways for children and families, including family reunification mechanisms, while upholding the right to territorial asylum. Children and families should be allowed to enter a state’s territory in order to apply for asylum and be able to remain there for the duration of asylum proceedings.
  • Strengthening child-sensitive border and reception processes that are led by child protection authorities at the earliest possible stage, implement child-specific safeguards, preserve family unity including for children traveling with their non-parental caregivers, and ensure access to legal services.
  • Investing in strong national child protection systems to safeguard all children, including migrant and refugee children, from exploitation and violence, ensuring compliance with adequate procedures to determine their best interests, and promote safe border crossing.

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Notes to editors:

*Named changed

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