(Panama) The number of children crossing the dangerous jungle of Darien, on the border between Panama and Colombia, increased sevenfold in January and February compared to the same period in 2022, UNICEF reported on Thursday.

“Our teams on the ground have never seen so many children crossing the jungle of Panama, alone or with their parents,” said Garry Conille, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. , based in Panama.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, between January and February 2023, some 9,700 minors crossed the swampy and mountainous Darien jungle, compared to 1,400 crossings recorded last year at the same time.

“This is the highest number ever recorded over a two-month period since this data was collected,” the organization’s statement added.

The increase in the number of migrant children is due in particular to the worsening of inequalities and unemployment and to school dropouts linked to the pandemic, explained to AFP Laurent Duviller, adviser to UNICEF.

In addition, at least 200 children have crossed the jungle alone in two months, a figure five times higher than that observed in 2022 over the same period.

“We are concerned about this group because unaccompanied children are at high risk of falling into trafficking and criminal networks,” Duviller said.

Moreover, these minors “are very vulnerable to forms of violence, exploitation, child labor and various types of abuse, as they have no supervision”, he added.

The Darien Jungle has become an irregular migration corridor between South America and the United States via Central America.

This virgin forest of 575,000 hectares is devoid of any road network, infested with mosquitoes and snakes, dotted with ravines and criminal gangs raging there.

In January and February 2023, approximately 50,000 people, one in five of whom were minors, crossed the Panamanian jungle. In 2022, approximately 250,000 people traveled this route, 16% of them children.

The majority of these migrants come from Haiti, Venezuela and Ecuador.