During the eight months of 2023, more than 330,000 people have crossed the Darien Gap, the rainforest that divides Colombia and Panama, a record number that far exceeds the 248,000 migrants and refugees who transited through it in all of 2022.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on Tuesday highlighted the high risks faced by these people and warned that a fifth of them are children.
UNHCHR spokesperson Marta Hurtado expressed concern about the dangers and vulnerabilities faced by this unprecedented number of migrants and refugees on their journey to North America.
High risk of abuse
"Migrants and refugees are exposed to multiple human rights violations and abuses during their journey, including sexual violence, which is a particular risk for children, women, LGBTI persons and persons with disabilities," Hurtado told a press conference in Geneva.
She added that murders, disappearances, trafficking, robbery and intimidation by organised crime groups also occur during the journey.
The Darién jungle covers some 575,000 hectares and crossing it poses unsuspected dangers for most people who make the journey, especially if they do so during the dry season.
To cross the jungle, people walk an average of four to seven days, and in the rainy season the trek often takes up to ten days.
Limited humanitarian response
The Human Rights Office regretted the limited humanitarian attention received by migrants in both Panama and Costa Rica, which worsens the precarious living conditions and increases the vulnerability of these people.
The High Commissioner's spokesperson explained that Panama has built, with international support, two reception centres for migrants in the province of Darien and one on the border with Costa Rica to provide travellers with shelter, food, medical care, water and sanitation.
But these centres are stretched to the limit given the number of people on the move.
The Office reported that Panamanian authorities on the ground do not have the capacity to continue to provide protection and meet the humanitarian needs of refugees and migrants.
The UN agency acknowledged the efforts and challenges of Costa Rica and Panama to meet the humanitarian needs of people in the context of large mixed movements at the borders.
Collective efforts required
In this regard, Marta Hurtado stated that addressing the challenges of migration requires collective efforts and solutions at the regional and international level.
"We urge all States to promote human rights-based solutions to migration governance and to ensure border governance in accordance with international law and standards. We also recall the need to avoid discriminatory and anti-migrant narratives," Hurtado emphasised.
Similarly, the Human Rights Office called on the international community to strengthen its support to States in the Americas so that they can close protection gaps.
In conclusion, the High Commissioner's spokesperson urged the States of the continent to address the structural factors that force people to leave their homes and undertake dangerous journeys in search of safety and a more dignified life for themselves and their families.
Urgent migration policies
The United Nations Children's Fund, meanwhile, said it is "alarming" that more children and adolescents are crossing in the first half of 2023 alone than in all of last year. In the first six months of this year, more than 40,000 children made the dangerous journey. Half of them are under the age of five.
UNICEF says it is "vital" to "urgently" adopt more child-friendly national migration policies and stronger humanitarian responses, including age-specific health and child protection services, across the region.