Morning Chronicle - Number of children fleeing Latin America soars: UN

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Number of children fleeing Latin America soars: UN
Number of children fleeing Latin America soars: UN / Photo: MARTIN BERNETTI - AFP/File

Number of children fleeing Latin America soars: UN

More than 30,000 children have crossed the perilous Darien Gap jungle in four months on the path to a better life in the United States, a number up 40 percent from the same period last year, the UN children's agency said Wednesday.

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UNICEF warned of "a fifth consecutive year of record levels of child migration" through the lawless jungle between Panama and Colombia, where migrants face risky river crossings, wild animals and violent criminal gangs that extort, kidnap and abuse them.

The 165-mile (265-kilometer) Darien Gap "is no place for children," said UNICEF deputy executive director Ted Chaiban in a statement.

"Many children have died on this arduous, dangerous journey. Many of those who survive the journey arrive sick, hungry, and dehydrated, often with wounds or infections and in desperate need of support."

According to UNICEF, nearly 2,000 of the children who made the journey did so alone -- triple the number of unaccompanied minors who passed through last year.

The agency estimated that 800,000 people, including 160,000 children and adolescents, could cross the jungle in 2024, and urged more funding to help support the young migrants making the crossing.

"The stories we hear from children and parents who have made the journey are incredibly harrowing," said Chaiban.

He said he had met an 11-year-old girl, Esmeira, who had had to cross swollen rivers, alone, scared, and desperately hungry, after being separated from her mother.

"No child should have to live through or witness these things."

In 2023, a record 520,000 people -- most of them Venezuelans -- crossed through the gap which has become a key corridor for migrants heading from South America through Central America and Mexico in hopes of reaching the United States.

The stream of migrants passing through the Darien became a key issue in Panama's election earlier this month, and president-elect Jose Raul Mulino vowed to deport those entering the country from the route.

"In order to do away with the odyssey that is the Darien Gap ... with international aid we will begin a process of repatriation, in full compliance with the human rights of all the people there," he said.