More migrant children than ever are transiting through Latin America and the Caribbean, and they are uniquely vulnerable to the threats of the region’s dangerous migration routes, according to a new report from the United Nations’ lead child-welfare agency.
“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,” said Garry Conille, director of UNICEF for Latin America and the Caribbean, in a statement. “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.”
The record number of migrant children coincides with the historic levels of irregular migration the Western hemisphere has experienced in recent years, and that the United States and other countries are struggling to contain as people flee simultaneous social, political, economic and environmental crises in Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and other countries in the region.
Children make up about a quarter of all people on the move in Latin America and the Caribbean, higher than the total percent of migrant children at the global level, which is 13%, UNICEF said. And most of the children moving through the region are very young: as many as 91% were under age 11 along certain “key transit points” examined by the agency.
“We are no longer talking about young adults, single men, looking for a better life. We are talking about the profile of the migration drastically changing in the last decade. We are seeing more families, families with children, sometimes children alone,” said Laurent Duvillier, regional chief of Communications and Advocacy for Latin America and the Caribbean for the agency.
The agency doesn’t have estimates for the total number of children moving through the region. But the report identifies three major migration flows where the volume of children “has reached record highs:” The Darien Gap, a dangerous stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama; out of Venezuela, which is facing a humanitarian crisis that has pushed over 7 million people to leave since 2014; and northern Central America and Mexico, heading north to the U.S. border.
The report also identifies places in which a “smaller, yet significant movement of people” is also happening. They include migrants leaving Cuba and Nicaragua, a flow of people between Andean countries, and the thousands of people coming to Latin America and the Caribbean from places as far as Afghanistan, Cameroon, Somalia and Bangladesh.
“It’s clearly not a border issue between two countries. This is a continental issue that requires a continental solution that requires all the governments to come together and look at migrant children for who they are and to protect their specific rights,” Duvillier said.
He emphasized that the different flows “don’t necessarily aim towards the United States,” using the example of migrants in South America who stay in neighboring countries in the continent to be closer to home, or Haitians who moved to Chile and Brazil after the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people.
More than 330,000 people have crossed the Darien Gap this year, said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Marta Hurtado on Tuesday. About 20% of crossers were children, she added, saying that the resources of the Panamanian government were stretched thin because of the large volume of migrants flowing through the treacherous stretch of wilderness. The journey, which goes through mountains, hills, and rivers, can take up to 10 days under tropical rains during the wet season. There is also the presence of human trafficking rings and criminals who pose a threat to migrants, as well as dangerous animals such as jaguars and snakes.
“I’ve heard stories of mothers who lost their babies in the forest. I’ve heard stories of children arriving alone after being separated from their parents along the journey. You can see those fathers and mothers carrying their babies literally on their back and arriving in Panama after crossing those borders. They are literally survivors,” Duvillier said.
The United States, in collaboration with Panama and Colombia, launched a 60-day campaign earlier this year that had as one of its aims to end irregular migration in the Darien Gap. But the flow hasn’t stopped.
In all, more than 60,000 children crossed the dangerous route through August of this year, “making it the year with the most child crossings on record,” UNICEF said. The report also pointed to an increase in the number of U.S. Customs and Border Protection encounters with unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexico border in the last few years, registering over 152,000 such encounters just in the last fiscal year.
UNICEF highlighted several reasons why families and children flee their home countries, including poverty, gang violence, political insecurity and lack of access to education and basic services. It also identified several natural disasters from the last few years — including Hurricanes Eta and Iota in Nicaragua, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake in Haiti, and rainfall and droughts in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua — that have driven people from their home countries. Those disasters, compounded with the COVID-19 pandemic, left many people sick and jobless in Latin America as the region grappled with quarantine, government-issued lockdowns, business closures and overwhelmed hospitals.
Duvillier told the Herald that the agency is working to ensure that children have access to basic services, healthcare and education, which the report asserts that migrant children are not always able to receive as they settle or transit through different countries in the region.
Duvillier said that UNICEF — which is asking for a combined $304 million to tend to the needs of migrant and refugee youth across the region and which said it has not received most of its funding requirements — offers both humanitarian assistance such as access to healthcare and water as well as helping migrant children with long-term access to civil registration, legal documentation, and school and healthcare systems.
“Child migration can be turned into an opportunity for stability, growth and opportunity in the region. But that can only happen if we offer education, health, and other opportunities for children,” he said.
UNICEF issued several recommendations for United Nations member countries, including eradicating the “child-specific causes of migration,” creating family reunification systems and protecting the right to asylum and other new avenues of regular migration and instituting “child-sensitive” processes at international borders.
“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.
Read the report here.