Colombia’s border with Panama is a nightmare for children’s health

(Image: Timothy O'Farrell)

Health officials on Colombia’s side of the Darien Gap – the region and dense jungle on the border with Panama – are increasingly dealing with migrant children’s physical and mental health issues.

The Darien is one of the fastest growing and most dangerous migration routes in the world, with over 500,000 migrants crossing the 100 km stretch of jungle in 2023.

By MilenioscuroOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

However, as this number grows, so to does the sheer number of children who are undertaking this route, including unaccompanied children and those from outside of Latin America. 

A recent Human Rights Watch report highlighted Colombia’s significant shortcomings in protecting and providing humanitarian aid to children in the Darien region.

So far in 2024, 22% of the people crossing the Darien are children. Half of them are below the age of five. This is substantially higher than that in 2022, where just 16% of all people crossing were children. It is also significantly higher than the estimated global average of 13%.

In the same tone as the HRW report, health officials speaking with Colombia Reports in the region said that the growing number of children on the move is creating a series of health challenges that international aid organizations and local health care systems are unprepared for.

Somer Carvajal Valayes, a health official at the mayor’s office in Acandi, tells us the story of a 16 year old Ecuadorian girl who arrived in one of the migrant camps in the border village on the edge of the Darien gap. She arrived with pale skin and bloodshot eyes, and required immediate medical attention.

“She required a blood transfusion. They brought her from the shelter to the health center. At the health center, they did not have the necessary supplies [to treat her].”

Therefore, Valayes told Colombia Reports, they had no other option but to transfer her back to Necocli for treatment, an almost 2 hour boat ride away.

“Unfortunately, before reaching the destination, the girl died. But she died precisely because of that administrative deficiency.”

Speaking with frustration and a sense of disappointment, Valayes contends “but if we had the hospital in optimal conditions with a blood bank, there would have been no need for the girl to be transferred there. Here she would have been treated and possibly would not have died.”

The Darien gap is the only part of the Pan-American highway between Alaska and Argentina where no road exists. Essentially an uninhabited and inhospitable rainforest separating Colombia and Panama, it is home to fast flowing rivers, heavy rain fall and dangerous animals.

However, the inhospitable nature of the jungle is not the only challenge children have to face in the Darien. Increasingly, criminal cartels, corrupt police and indigenous communities have been exploiting migrants in the jungle, making this a uniquely dangerous, traumatic and potentially deadly place for children. Death, robbery and sexual abuse are common occurrences in the lawless Darien jungle.

In just one week in February 2024, Medicos Sin Fronteras reported that 113 people were treated for sexual assault after crossing the Darien Gap, including 9 children. These figures from just one week were double the monthly average across 2023.

(Image: Timothy O’Farrell)

A jungle of nightmares for children’s physical and mental health

For international aid-organizations and local health workers, Children’s health is both their primary concern and the greatest challenge. Due to the nature of migration flow, aid-workers in Turbo, Necocli and Acandi told Colombia Reports that even if they are able to diagnosis a child with a disease or medical condition requiring ongoing treatment, they may only have several hours to treat them before that child will continue their journey north.

In Venezuela in particular, where over 60% of the migrants crossing the Darien are coming from, measles, diphtheria, varicella, and other vaccine-preventable diseases have recently remerged.

According to a recent study on vulnerable children in the Darien Gap: Under-immunized infants crossing the Darien Gap present a critical public health concern as they can harbor infections acquired in their home countries where there has been a re-emergence.

The study adds that infectious diseases are the most frequently identified medical condition when migrant and refugee children arrive into their host country. Using Mexico-US border data, the study contends that many children arriving in the U.S., having travelled through the Darien, are significantly behind in their immunizations, and presents a further health risk to host countries like the U.S.

Before entering the jungle, each night hundreds of families sleep in the two migrant camps in Acandi.

A number of migrants speaking with Colombia Reports mentioned that they had to decide between paying the Darien entry fee – set by Colombia’s largest criminal group AGC, which controls Colombia’s of the Darien region – or paying the high prices for food set by the locals.

According to the Colombian Red Cross (CRC), children’s mental health is also a growing issue for aid-organizations in the area as the number of robberies, sexual assaults and even murders are being witnessed or experienced by children.

In the month of March, the CRC treated 596 people in the Darien region for psychological reasons, and over 5000 for illness or administering medicine.

Speaking to Colombia Reports, a migration spokesperson from the CRC said their Panamanian colleagues are increasingly treating children suffering from traumatic experiences in the Darien, alongside malnutrition, sickness and excessive mosquito bites.

During their journey through the jungle, not only are the children’s physical integrity compromised, but also their mental health. For the youngsters, this journey ceases to be a short vacation and becomes, for some, their worst life experience.

CRC spokesperson

In a report released in September last year, UNICEF found that “migrant and refugee families with children are particularly exposed to violence (because they are easy targets), including physical and sexual violence, trafficking and extortion from criminal gangs while crossing” through the jungle. There are also increasing reports of adolescent girls and women being sexually assaulted in the Darien jungle.

(Image: Timothy O’Farrell)

More children and more misinformation

Maria Rosa Seminario’s decision to leave Peru in the hope of reaching the U.S. is not just about escaping the economic hardship she has been facing for many years; it’s about ensuring a better future for her two young boys, Marco and Santiago. Maria, 29, has already tried once before to enter the U.S. after flying to Mexico on her own in 2022, but was forced to return to Peru by Mexico border security.

This time however, Maria is travelling with her two sons, and doing the entire journey on land, including the 3-5 day trek through the Darien.

“Because every day the situation in Peru is worse. There is no future. There is a lot of destruction, drug addiction and criminals. We live in worse conditions every day. What they earn in an hour in the United States, in Peru we earn in 10 hours,” said Maria in the Medellin bus terminal before taking a bus to Necoclí.

Maria’s decision to embark on this treacherous journey reflects a growing trend among migrants in Latin America to bring their children with them. As economic and political conditions continue to deteriorate across LAC, especially in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and in countries like Venezuela, Peru and Ecuador, more and more families are undertaking the passage through the Darien Gap.

In just two years, the share percent of children to adults crossing the Darien Gap has surged from 16% to 22%.

However, like Marco and Santiago, children’s comprehension regarding the dangers of the Darien is an often overlooked aspect of the migration journey. TikTok and Facebook are increasingly becoming the primary sources of information for migrants crossing the jungle, and according to NGOs in the area, children and families are often misinformed and underprepared.

Gabriel* works at Medical Teams International (MTI) at the port in Turbo. MTI has a humanitarian shop which provides free basic sanitary and healthcare supplies as well as information on the Darien route. According to Gabriel, “most people who come here are unprepared for the Darien jungle.”

Showing a map of the countries between Colombia and the U.S., Gabriel mentions that almost every day he meets a migrant that has been told that after crossing the Darien Gap, they will arrive in the U.S. When in-fact 6-7 more countries lie in their way.

Many of these unprepared or misinformed people are families with young children, telling me that he believes much of this misinformation comes from the likes of TikTok.

Encountering sometimes hundreds of children each day, Colombia Reports asked Gabriel about how the children feel and what their comprehension of the Darien is. “Usually if the parents are happy the kids are happy,” he responded. Adding that “children often think they are on an adventure, with camping and buses and walking etc.”

Maria, on the other hand, has made the dangers clear to her children.

I’ve been mentally preparing my children. So that they are prepared for what we have to live through. Because the Indians come out, they say they rape you. Others say they rob you. Others say you have to be quite fit to be able to walk. Because you walk up mountains and across rocks. They say snakes come out, and other animals. Well, I don’t know because I haven’t experienced it yet. But we will experience the experience.

Maria Rosa Seminario

Despite the risks involved, Maria, like thousands of other parents who will take their children through the Darien in 2024, the hope of a better life outweighs the fear and danger of the migration journey.

As of the 10th of May, Maria and her two boys have crossed into Mexico and are continuing their journey to the U.S.

“Gabriel” asked to remain anonymous

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