PANAMA CITY, May 30 (Reuters) – The number of child migrants crossing a dangerous stretch of jungle dividing Colombia and Panama has rapidly increased during the first four months of this year, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Tuesday.
The thick jungle terrain of the Darien Gap, which is also home to roving bands of criminals, has become a key transit point for thousands of mostly U.S.-bound migrants setting out in search of better lives from South America.
A record 25,431 children and teens, both accompanied and unaccompanied, entered Panama through the Darien Gap between January and April, according to a statement from UNICEF provided to Reuters.
The sharp rise in minor crossings marks an eight-fold increase compared to the same four-month period last year, when just over 3,000 children and teen migrants made the treacherous trek, according to the UNICEF data.
Adding to the already dangerous conditions, minors are increasingly arriving in Panama without an adult or guardian after crossing the Darien Gap, UNICEF said.
The U.N. fund noted that so far this year an average of between eight to 10 unaccompanied and separated children arrive daily at migrant reception stations in Panama. That compares with under three a day last year, according to Reuters calculations based on UNICEF data.
If the current trend of minor arrivals to Panama holds, the number could top 100,000 by the end of the year, according to migration analysts, even though crossings tend to drop during the second half of the year as heavy rains soak the region.