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Unicef warns of “massive” increase in child migrants through Panamanian jungle to the U.S.

More than 5,000 children have crossed Panama’s inhospitable Darien jungle in 2022, double the number of children who crossed this dangerous route to the United States in the same period last year, Unicef warned Friday.

“We are in the middle of the rainy season right now and our teams in the field are seeing a massive increase in children risking their lives and crossing the jungle on foot in the worst weather conditions,” warned Jean Gough, Unicef director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

“More and more children” are “forced to flee their homes as the only viable option for survival,” Gough added in a statement.

According to Unicef, from January 1 to May 31, more than 5,000 minors crossed the Darien, twice as many as in the same period in 2021. In addition, 2,000 children crossed the jungle in May 2022, four times more than in May 2021.

Unicef also noted that nearly 170 children were unaccompanied or separated from their families. Some also had no identity or birth registration.

“What we see is that there is a significant increase” of minors through the jungle despite the fact that “there are many risks,” Laurent Duvillier, Unicef’s regional head of communications, told AFP.

“The children arrive in very precarious conditions and need medical attention for dehydration problems, skin infections, trauma from what they have seen, such as sexual harassment, extortion or people who died on the way.” 

The Darien Gap, 5,000 square kilometers of rainforest on the border between Panama and Colombia, has become a corridor for irregular migration from South America trying to cross Central America to the United States.

On this route there are no roads and migrants must face raging rivers, wild animals and criminal groups.

According to official data, in 2021 more than 133,000 people, mostly Haitians and Cubans, crossed it. Almost a quarter of them were children.  

In 2022, more than 32,000 people crossed the border, twice as many as in the same period in 2021. Now they are mostly Venezuelans.

According to Unicef, the situation has caused the centers installed by the Panamanian government to care for these migrants to overflow.

“The current state of the temporary shelters does not match the increased demand and needs of the children,” Gough said.

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