• The characteristics of the migrant population in transit through the Darien jungle, at the border between Colombia and Panama, have changed from mainly extracontinental men in search of opportunities in Mexico, the United States and Canada, to families with children and pregnant women fleeing poverty, exclusion and conflict. In 2019, the number of children and adolescents who successfully crossed one of the most dangerous jungles in the world increased six-fold in comparison to the previous year. This meant an increase from 522 in 2018 to 3,540 in 2019. It is estimated that in 2019 more than 500 pregnant women transited through the Darien.
• In 2017, 1% of migrants were under the age of 18, in 2018 it increased to 5% and in 2019 there was a significant increase reaching 15.8%. Based on this pattern, it is estimated that for 2020 there will be an increase in the transit of children and adolescents through the Darien, mainly of Haitian families with children holding Chilean or Brazilian nationality.
• UNICEF Panama, in an effort to expand its programme response, is implementing actions in the sectors of WASH, Health, Nutrition and Child Protection to respond to the needs of children and adolescents as they transit through Panama.
• UNICEF, with implementing partners, installed and operates a water treatment plant to serve the migrant population at the Migratory Reception Station (ERM for its abbreviation in Spanish) of Peñitas, and reactivated a water distribution system that provides water to the local community.
Through two Child Friendly Spaces, UNICEF provides psychosocial support to up to 70 children and adolescents per day.
Situation Overview and Humanitarian Needs
The jungle of Darien, at the border between Colombia and Panama, is described by the migrant population as one of the most dangerous and difficult transit points towards North America. From August to November 2019, 4,7871 persons from 44 nationalities transited through the Darien, averaging to 1,197 persons per month.
Between August and November, 1,078 migrants who survived the transit through the Darien were children and adolescents, half of them were in the early stages of childhood. During the same period, 137 pregnant women in their late stages of pregnancy were reported transiting through the same border. July 2019 witnessed the highest number of migrants entering Panama through the Darien with 3,970 persons, in comparison to the period from August to November where there was a decrease of more than one-third of migrants.
At the arrival to the Migratory Reception Station of Peñitas, 2 children present signs of diarrhoea, vomit, fever, cough, headaches and harsh skin conditions. Pregnant women are at risk of abortion and infections. As of August, basic health services, including vaccination, are provided to migrants five times per week by the Ministry of Health (MINSA for its abbreviation in Spanish) in partnership with the Panamerican Health Organization (PAHO).
Between January and November, 50 unaccompanied and separated children and adolescents transiting through the Darien were identified by the National Frontier Service (SENAFRONT for its abbreviation in Spanish), out of which 11 (3 girls and 8 boys) were identified in the month of November alone. The absence of documentation, the death of family members, language barriers and the range of ages – ranging from 6 months to 17 years – are some of the major challenges the National Office for Children, Adolescents and Family (SENNIAF for its abbreviation in Spanish) face to assist this population.
As a response to the increased migration through the Darien during the first half of the year (almost 4,000 migrants), the Panamanian Government through SENAFRONT, initiated the construction of a temporary shelter in the community of Lajas Blancas. The shelter has an estimated capacity of 1,000 persons. Nevertheless, the change in government in July placed a halt in the construction leading to a deterioration of the shelter and sanitary facilities already built. Lajas Blancas is not currently operating and no opening date has been set.
Considering the current context, the following humanitarian needs have been identified:
• The Office of the Ombudsman has expressed to national and humanitarian actors the need to increase civil and humanitarian presence at the indigenous community of Bajo Chiquito, the first migrant reception station.
Migrants stay a few days at this reception station before transiting by boat to the ERM of Peñitas.
• As accorded by the United Nations Border Coordination Group, continued advocacy is a priority to guarantee that the Ministry of Health maintains the provision of basic health services, including vaccination, to the migrants at the ERMs of Darien and Chiriquí. Continued advocacy efforts are needed to guarantee the availability of medicine, health services and psychological support for victims of sexual violence.
• The Child Protection Working Group, led by SENNIAF, requires technical and financial assistance to strengthen capacities to identify child protection cases and establish referral, protection and assistance mechanisms, particularly for cases of unaccompanied and separated children, children with special health needs, genderbased violence victims and violence against children in Darien and Chiriquí.
• UNICEF, through field monitoring, continues gathering information to understand the root causes of human mobility leading to the increase migration of children and adolescents during 2019. This will support decision-making for the Child Protection Working Group.
• The Water Committee of the Peñitas Community Board requires support in identifying sustainable mechanisms for the operation of the community water purification system, which Global Brigades – an NGO - is installing.
This action is complementary to the provision of water through an emergency water treatment plant installed under the agreement between UNICEF and the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC).
• At the ERM of Peñitas - Darien and Planes de Gualaca -Chiriquí, translation and orientation services are needed. In addition, international contact services, information on protection mechanisms and psychosocial support for adult migrants traveling alone, particularly women, is needed. These services would allow for the identification and assistance of victims of human trafficking, smuggling and sexual exploitation in transit through Central America.
• UNICEF has identified the need for binational coordination mechanisms between Colombia and Panama that would create a system of alerts to ensure a prompt humanitarian response in the face of an unexpected increase of migrants, particularly of children, adolescents and pregnant women. In addition, there is a need to create referral mechanisms with Costa Rican authorities for special protection cases and special health-related cases.