March 31, 2023

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Minors Migrating Alone: ​​A Growing Tragedy in the Colombian Borderlands

When Maria embarked on her second journey Darien must try to cross the gap, on the border between Colombia and Panama, saw a Haitian family give up their baby boy to a Venezuelan couple. This is the only way to guarantee a future different from the one they have when they return to their country. Later, along the same route, she found several young men, not even fifteen years old, who, like her, made this journey alone, she says on the phone from Nekogli. Everyone was looking forward to a better future. They are not new images to Maria and the rest of the group of migrants, who are used to doing whatever it takes to cross the dense forest.

Although Colombia has always been a destination for migration, the traffic of minors, especially unaccompanied minors, has increased in the past year. From January to May 2022, 19,000 people traveled to Darien, 25% of which were children and adolescents. For its part, UNICEF warned that 168 children and adolescents in the same period Crossed the border into Panama unaccompanied or separated, in contrast to 2021, the number of minors has crossed 202 throughout the year. A tragedy rooted in the change in migration dynamics, moreover, needs urgent attention from the government.

Two adults prepare a woman for a boat trip in Necogli, Colombia, in August 2021.Table of Santiago

Last year’s migration, at least in Darien, was mainly Haitian, male and young. But in 2022, it has become another exodus of Venezuelan-born and family fetuses, resulting in a greater displacement of migrant minors without some form of caregivers. Separated children are those who get lost in the middle of wild border trails or are separated from their families by third parties, be they illegal actors or authorities. Separated minors range in age from 0 to 5 years, while unaccompanied minors are mostly teenagers.

Cautions have been raised about the implications of this shift in migratory flow, given the size and vulnerability of these populations, if one takes into account wild routes such as the Darien Forest. In terms of health effects alone, it is worrying that minors are prone to skin infections, severe dehydration and drowning. From Doctors Without BordersA humanitarian organization based in Panama’s border region expressed their concern that “being an epidemiologically highly vulnerable population, this has negative effects on their health and development.”

Two children look back from a dock in Necogli, Colombia, before crossing the Darien border on August 4, 2021.
Two children look back from a dock in Necogli, Colombia, before crossing the Darien border on August 4, 2021.Table of Santiago

But the dangers to which children and adolescents are exposed are many and varied. The Ombudsman revealed this after a visit to Necoclí, the gateway to Darien: “I call again to the authorities of Colombia and other countries, through which the transport of unaccompanied minors occurs. These people receive special protection from the government to prevent them from falling into the hands of criminal networks that use them for illegal activities such as kidnapping, sexual exploitation and smuggling, begging, drug trafficking.

These same concerns are shared by a worker from a community organization in the Darien region, who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons, and pointed out: “It’s no secret that many of these minors are exploited in Uraba. Begging due to lack of resources or illegal armed groups operating in these areas like the Clan del Golfo. Victims of forced recruitment by groups.

A country where traffic and conflict are on the rise

Colombia is usually a transit country connecting the center and the south of the continent by more than four border points, crossing for large traders of Africans from Venezuela and Haitians. Most of them seek to reach America, while others go to Canada. According to this route and its main destinations, the phenomenon of unaccompanied children and adolescents has been repeated over the years along the border between Mexico and the United States or in the Northern Triangle of Central America. But since this is a recent and emerging dynamic in countries like Colombia, containment measures are in their early and critical stages, including a strong resurgence of internal armed conflict.

A clear example is Nekogli, The municipality receives thousands of migrants annually, but due to its size, is structured under a ‘sixth category’ figure. In other words, the state resources allocated there are limited. A limiting factor in the presence of key government agencies to deal with this scourge or provide effective care to migrant populations and children, namely the National Agency for Family Welfare, lacks a direct presence in this area. Urabá , but provides its services through third parties.

In August 2021, a migrant child was weighed in Necogli, Colombia, before Darien continued his journey to the Cape jungle.
In August 2021, a migrant child was weighed in Necogli, Colombia, before Darien continued his journey to the Cape jungle.Table of Santiago

In other places with high migration rates, such as Cúcuta or Arauca, where the traffic of minors has also increased, the problem has other complications. At these points, presence is often provided by militarization along the Colombian-Venezuelan border, with the cooperation of the so-called ‘tracks’ of illegal armed groups and the continuous territorial conflicts, creating obstacles. A comprehensive focus on immigrants.

The Colombian government faces a humanitarian challenge that is already overwhelming its state structure and requires immediate solutions. This was reaffirmed by UNICEF, where they expressed their concerns implicitly: “Governors must commit and take immediate measures to protect all migrant children, adolescents and families while on the move.” Meanwhile, these measures seem far-fetched and hundreds of young people risk their lives and continue to live on the borders, trying to realize their dream of living in dignified conditions.

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