PANAMA CITY (Reuters) – A substantial hike in children crossing the Darien jungle – linking Panama with Colombia – is expected this year, the United Nations said on Friday, amid a surge in migrants making the dangerous journey to reach the United States.

By the end of 2023, more than 300,000 migrants are set to have crossed the jungle, over 60,000 of which could be minors, said Diana Romero, an emergency protection specialist at the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF).

“At least 20% (of people using the route) will be children and adolescents,” Romero told Reuters, asking families to review the decision due to the perils of such journey.

That would put the flow of minors passing through the Darien up if compared to the 40,438 who entered the country in 2022, according to official data.

In January this year, over 4,800 children and adolescents are recorded to have used the route, seven times more than the same month a year earlier.

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Over the last four years, the Darien Gap has gone from being a route for adult migrants to hosting whole families fleeing from poverty, violence and lack of work, Romero said.

Last year, a record 248,000 migrants crossed the Darien Gap, most of them Venezuelans. A new, stricter U.S. migration policy has resulted in many being returned to Panama, where they often cannot afford transportation back to Venezuela.

At least 39 people died in Panama on Wednesday after a bus carrying more than 60 migrants, among several children, fell off a cliff, marking the country’s worst known migration accident.

Wednesday’s accident highlighted the “need to improve the living conditions” of those looking to migrate, Romero said.

She also said that many of those arriving in Panama said they would not have exposed their children if they had known about the area’s dangers before the trip.

(Reporting by Elida Moreno; Writing by Carolina Pulice; Editing by Michael Perry)

Copyright 2023 Thomson Reuters.

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