PANAMA CITY • The number of US-bound migrant children crossing the dangerous Darien Gap jungle in Panama on foot has increased more than 15-fold in recent years and is likely to rise further during the pandemic, the United Nations children's agency has warned.
Children accounted for just 2 per cent of these migrants in 2017 but that rose to more than 25 per cent last year, Unicef said in a statement on Monday.
The Darien Gap jungle, the only land corridor between Colombia and Panama, is "one of the most dangerous routes in the world due to the mountainous terrain, wildlife and insects, as well as the presence of criminal organisations", the agency added.
Crossing the vast, roadless Darien Gap rainforest is the only option for US-bound migrants travelling overland from South America. Most of those making the crossing are Haitians and Cubans, but there are also some Asians and Africans.
"I've seen women step out of the jungle carrying their babies in their arms after walking for more than seven days without water, food or any kind of protection," said Ms Jean Gough, Unicef regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Over the past four years, more than 46,500 migrants, including 6,240 children and adolescents, have crossed the inhospitable jungle. The number of minors increased from 109 to 1,653 between 2017 and last year, Unicef said.
In 2019, a peak of nearly 4,000 children made the crossing. Half of them were under five years old and many arrived injured and with serious physical and psychological problems.
Experts believe more and more migrants are choosing to travel with their families, including young children and pregnant women, to avoid being deported to the different countries they pass through. "These families are pushing their own limits and putting their lives in danger, often without realising how much of a risk they are taking. Those who manage to eventually cross this perilous border are physically and mentally devastated," Ms Gough said.
Migration across the dangerous jungle is likely to increase in the next months due to the economic crisis and unemployment generated by the Covid-19 pandemic, coupled with violence and climate change, Unicef said.
Meanwhile, Guatemala declared a state of emergency in swathes of the country to halt a caravan of Honduran migrants expected to depart towards the border between both countries yesterday, with the eventual aim of reaching the United States. The decree restricts outdoor gatherings and authorises the use of force to break up any unauthorised groups. It is binding for 15 days.
President Alejandro Giammattei signed a decree placing five border departments in a "preventive state" to deal with migrants seeking to enter Guatemala without the required travel documents or negative coronavirus test results.
The caravan risked creating a "public security crisis" by "aggravating the epidemiological health emergency" posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, states the decree.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG