The number of migrant children crossing the Darién Gap, one of the world’s most dangerous stretches of land linking Colombia to Panama, has soared to an all-time high, warned UNICEF, the United Nations agency for children. Half of the children are younger than five.
The skyrocketing numbers underscore the risks migrants are willing to make in their efforts to reach the U.S. The 66-mile long roadless stretch of jungle is a well-traveled path for migrants and also one of the world’s most terrifying.
Hundreds if not thousands die every year of hunger and dehydration as they try to walk across. Criminal gangs prey on desperate travelers.
Nearly 19,000 migrant children crossed the Darién Gap between January and September this year, three times the number who crossed over the previous five years combined. At least five children died, and more than 150 have arrived in Panama without their parents, UNICEF said this week. The agency added that it recorded 29 reports of sexual assault of adolescent girls during the journey.
“Each child crossing the Darién Gap on foot is a survivor,” Jean Gough, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, said in a statement. “Deep in the jungle, robbery, rape and human trafficking are as dangerous as wild animals, insects and the absolute lack of safe drinking water. Week after week, more children are dying, losing their parents, or getting separated from their relatives while on this perilous journey.”
The migrants come from more than 50 countries, although Haitians make up around half of all those crossing, according to the new data. Most Haitians are coming not from the country itself, but rather Chile and Brazil, where they lived for years until recessions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated their jobs and fueled xenophobia. That pushed them to take a chance on traveling to the U.S., bringing their Chilean and Brazilian-born children with them.
The growing numbers underscore the long-term challenges facing the Biden administration as it seeks to create a more humane immigration policy while still deterring would-be migrants. The arrival of thousands of asylum-seeking Haitians last month at the Texas border town of Del Rio caused a public relations nightmare, after immigration agents on horseback were photographed wielding their reins like whips to corral the migrants and break up the camp, which had grown to as many as 14,000 people.
Around 2,000 Haitians at the camp were immediately expelled to Haiti and around 8,000 returned to Mexico, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Those who returned to Mexico said they feared being sent to Haiti, which is in the throes of a humanitarian and security crisis. But thousands of Haitians were allowed into the U.S. to pursue their asylum claims. It’s unclear why some were allowed in and others weren’t.
The wave of Haitian migrants reaching the U.S. border may be just starting. More than 15,000 were counted at the Panama-Colombia border in August, up from 5,293 in June and just 623 in January. Those numbers don’t include many of their children, who are Chilean and Brazilian citizens.
“Never before have our teams on the ground seen so many young children crossing the Darién Gap –often unaccompanied,” Gough said. “Such a fast-growing influx of children heading north from South America should urgently be treated as a serious humanitarian crisis by the entire region, beyond Panama.”
The number of migrant children trying to reach the U.S. is also reflected in the increase in arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border. From October 2020 to August 2021, around 136,000 unaccompanied minors were encountered at the U.S.’s southwestern border, compared to 77,000 over the same time period in the previous year. And around 410,000 migrants traveling in families have arrived, on par with last year’s numbers.
The Biden administration is allowing in all unaccompanied children but expelling some families to their countries of origin.
“It’s entirely possible that they could come all the way through the Darién on a horrible trip with their parents and be expelled right back to their country of origin,” said Adam Isacson, an expert on border security at the Washington Office of Latin America, a human rights research and advocacy group.
He said the likelihood of expulsion is reasonably high if the families are Haitian, but Cubans and Venezuelans are generally being allowed to pursue their asylum cases because the U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic relations with those countries.
Isacson said the number of children crossing the Darién Gap is unprecedented. “We have never seen anything like that.”