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Colombian Refugees in Panama

PTH holders need permission to travel outside the immediate vicinity of Jaque – a three mile radius - for any purpose, including exigent circumstances and emergency healthcare. This extremely limited mobility guarantees that those with PTH status are relegated to extraordinarily unstable lives. They are not able to move much beyond the borders of Jaque to raise crops or to fish, and livelihood opportunities in Jaque are scarce at best. (Sergi Camera/Jesuit Refugee Service)
Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The celebration of the separation of Panama from Colombia during the delegation’s visit in early November 2010 was a visible reminder of the historic association between the peoples of these two countries. While there are no official statistics available, it is estimated that as many as 100,000 to 200,000 Colombians currently reside in Panama. Of these, UNHCR estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 are thought to be in need of international protection, but NGOs believe that number could be as high as 75,000. However, only 2,500 persons of concern are currently registered with UNHCR. The situation of refugeesin Panama can best be characterized by the combination of a restrictive protection environment, a broken asylum system that grants recognition to only 2% of refugee applicants annually, and a lack of durable solutions. The result is a highly vulnerable refugee population in which the vast majority of bona fide refugee claimants are without legal or physical protection, and single women/women heads of household, the elderly, persons with chronic illness and children in particular reside in gravely precarious and unstable conditions.

Refugee Recognition and a Broken Asylum System

Panama is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, the tenets of which were incorporated into Panama’s national legislation in 1977.2 And while Panama is a signatory to the Cartagena Declaration, which also recognizes refugees who were displaced by generalized violence, they have not implemented the tenets of the declaration. In addition, it is important to note that Panamanian asylum law requires that for a person to receive refugee status, his/her persecution must be individualized and have been perpetrated at the hands of the government of the asylum seeker's country of origin or habitual residency. Given the persecution scenarios that currently dominate displacement in neighboring Colombia, Panama’s national Human Rights Ombudsman’s office expressed concern to the RCUSA delegation about the refusal of Panamanian refugee authorities to grant status to refugees who base their claims on persecution by non-state actors. The Panamanian government’s refusal to recognize refugees who were persecuted by FARC or ELN guerillas, or the swiftly proliferating paramilitary organizations, has meant a near blanket denial of Colombian refugee claims.

This restricted definition of who qualifies as a refugee was also one of the reasons that the RCUSA delegation found the Panamanian asylum system to be deeply flawed. The Panamanian asylum system is so dysfunctional that it actually deters refugees from seeking protection, and in many cases is approached as the option of last resort.  For example, the recognition of  asylum claims where a woman has been the victim of sexual and gender based violence at the hands of one of the Colombian armed groups is so low that female applicants are regularly encouraged to apply for other types of visas (e.g.: domestic worker visas) rather than seeking protection through Panama’s asylum system. 

Furthermore, Panama’s asylum process is extremely cumbersome. On average, it takes between one to three years for any given case to work its way through the system. The two step process begins with an application to the national office for refugees (ONPAR) whose director is responsible for the initial eligibility screening.  Only 10% of asylum applications make it through this phase.  Those who are denied entry into the second stage of the review process are subject to detention and repatriation. Step two is a review by the National Refugee Commission (CNPR), made up of representatives from nine government offices. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also have seats on the review panel, but only as observers/consultants and are ultimately not able to contribute to the commission’s decisions. Of the cases reviewed by the CNPR, only 20% are approved. Thus, in a year in which 400 persons apply for asylum, only eight will be granted status. The criteria applied during the eligibility phase of the process remains unclear, and many inconsistencies between Panamanian law and actual practice also contribute to the extremely limited protection the government provides to asylum seekers. For example, according to Panamanian law, the Commission should meet four times per year, but in 2009, it only met once.In addition, while Panamanian law states that refugees will be recognized if the majority of the Commission votes to grant the case, in current practice a refugee is only granted asylum if the Commissioners are unanimous in their approval. 

If the Commission denies a case, the refugee has five business days to ask for reconsideration by the same Commission.  If the reconsideration is denied, a refugee has only three business days to file an appeal to the Ministry of Government, which then submits the appeal to the same national office for refugees (ONPAR) where the original application was filed.  If applicants are denied again at this stage in the process, they have two weeks to pursue other immigration options before they are subject to deportation. The extremely low 2% success rate for asylum claims simply demonstrates Panama’s failure to recognize the trends of continued violence and persecution in Colombia. In addition, for the very small number of applicants who actually do receive refugee status, it is very important to note that currently in Panama, refugee status does not provide a path to permanent status or citizenship, resulting in continued limited protection even for recognized refugees.

Protection Risks: Refoulement, Limited Safety Nets, and Refugees in the Darien

Refoulement

Cases of refoulement are all too common in Panama, and refugee advocates report a continuing rise in the detention of newly arrived refugees and other refugees who come into contact with authorities. The Panamanian government’s general reluctance to provide basic protections to those seeking asylum from Colombia is further complicated by the Panamanian border police’s endemic skepticism about ethnically indigenous asylum seekers from Colombia. While the Panamanian Immigration Law that went into effect in August of 2008 "recognizes the right to cross-border migratory movements of indigenous groups on its territory, so long as such “do not constitute a mass influx…,"in practice the Panamanian police regard these movements with suspicion and forcibly remove communities of Colombian-born indigenous persons who voice their intent to seek refuge from the Colombian armed conflict by remaining within Panama’s borders.   

During the delegation’s visit, a group of Panamanian citizens personally sought out representatives of immigrant and refugee agencies to intervene with the national border police in order to prevent the return of a small group of indigenous Colombian asylum seekers who were seeking re-entry into Panama after being sent back to Colombia three weeks earlier.  Due to this intervention, some of the asylum seekers were interviewed and allowed to re-enter the country, but the border police again threatened to detain the group. Humanitarian workers insisted that the Panamanian refugee adjudication authority visit the families who were seeking asylum and formally register them. As further indication of widespread refoulement, in completely separate discussions with local and national officials, there were reports of the refoulement of 30 young Colombians who were recently repatriated to Bogotá without being allowed to enter the asylum adjudication process, despite their claim that they were being pursued by the FARC. This case raised issues of particular concern, because Panamanian officials stated that if the group made “repeated attempts” to cross the border, this would prove their real need for international protection, indicating a clear, fundamental misunderstanding of the basic international refugee protection framework and Panama’s obligations under the Refugee Convention.

Limited Safety Nets for Asylum Seekers

No government assistance is available for asylum seekers in Panama, and UNHCR-funded assistance has decreased steadily over the past several years due to limited financial resources. In the past year, UNHCR’s budget for Panama only totaled $600,000 USD.  UNHCR staff reported that they do not have sufficient funds to expand the levels of assistance that they can provide and are concerned that they cannot afford to support additional refugees should they be identified.5

Protection Risks for Women

The lack of any real, sustainable safety nets for asylum seekers in Panama creates an environment in which refugees face daily significant challenges. For example, both in the border region and in Panama City, women are forced to overcome tremendous obstacles in order to survive and provide for their families. Employment opportunities are so limited that many are forced into prostitution or the informal economy. Across the board, Colombian women are stigmatized and classified as prostitutes and face sexual harassment in workplace environments that offer no protection.  There is only one domestic violence shelter for women in all of Panama, so Colombian women who are survivors of domestic violence have limited resources available to them. In addition, the RCUSA delegation was told disturbing reports of border police and immigration officers sexually abusing Colombian women. In some cases, in exchange for avoiding detention or deportation, or to receive immigration benefits, Colombian women were forced to provide sexual favors for officials.

Protection Risks for Children

Inquiries throughout the visit yielded surprisingly little information about refugee child issues in Panama. It is known that UNHCR refers unaccompanied Colombian children to the Panamanian child welfare system, which then places them in local youth shelters intended for homeless children. No information was available about what happens to the youth after their placement in these shelters; nor, was there evidence of any coordination between these care arrangements and refugee protection or access to a permanent status.  The lack of transparency about what happens to unaccompanied Colombian children once they are in the custody of the Panamanian government raises concerns about their lack of documentation, lack of access to education, and the high risk of being forced into finding other means of survival, including recruitment into gangs and prostitution. Another complicating factor for Colombian children in Panama is that for those Colombian children born in Panama, it is very difficult to get birth registrations, particularly in rural areas. 

The numbers of unregistered children that were cited by UNHCR6 and NGOs were in the single digits. This is significantly below the international average for similar circumstances, as well as when compared to the reports from the conflict inside Colombia which has produced a high rate of orphans and children recruited by armed groups.  It was, therefore, difficult to determine if there are any formal policies or procedures to identify unaccompanied or separated children among the Colombian population in Panama, or to assess their care arrangements for their well-being, permanency and access to a durable solution.

Refugees in the Darien Region: A Decade in Limbo

"Here we live like slaves."  Colombian refugee grandmother, with Humanitarian Temporary Protection who has lived in the town of Jaque since 1998

Five members of the RCUSA delegation visited the small town of Jaque, located in the Panama-Colombia border region known as the Darien Gap. The Darien is a remote, jungle-filled, impoverished part of the country that is largely inaccessible except by boat or plane. Conditions for everyone in Jaque are precarious, and for the Colombian asylum seekers trapped there, life is exceptionally difficult.

Jaque and its immediate surroundings are now home to a relatively small group of Colombian asylum seekers with Humanitarian Temporary Protection (PTH) status. From 1998-2000, a group of people Afro-Colombians from the town of Jurado in Colombia crossed the border from Colombia into Panama as a result of several massacres carried out in town by the AUC paramilitaries and the assassination of the town’s mayor by the FARC guerillas.  In 1998 the Panamanian government established PTH status for 863 asylum seekers. However, in  2003, having received assurances from the Colombian government that safe returns could be implemented, the Panamanian government carried out a formal repatriation program in collaboration with the government of Colombia, forcing 85 refugees to return to Colombia.  Within weeks of the forced return, several of the returned refugees were assassinated and others fled back over the border into Panama, sparking condemnation of the returns by UNHCR, Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), and the Bishops Vicariate in the Darien.7

The majority of those with PTH status are Afro-Colombian.  Few Colombians of indigenous origin who entered during the same period ever registered. There are currently about 70 families (170 persons) with PTH status and 26 families of asylum seekers (155 persons) reported to be living in Jaque today. It should also be kept in mind that children of PTH holders are not given their own status, so they remain undocumented.

PTH status provides limited protection from refoulement, but little else.  PTH holders need permission to travel outside the immediate vicinity of Jaque – a three mile radius - for any purpose, including exigent circumstances and emergency healthcare. This extremely limited mobility guarantees that those with PTH status are relegated to extraordinarily unstable lives. They are not able to move much beyond the borders of Jaque to raise crops or to fish, and livelihood opportunities in Jaque are scarce at best. Delegation members spoke with Colombians in Jaque who regularly put their children to bed hungry and have limited opportunities to provide even the most basic necessities for their families. Moreover, in order to access any type of advanced medical assistance, PTH holders must receive government permission to leave the Darien to seek the care they need. Due to the lack of adequate medical facilities in the area, refugees are therefore forced to travel to Panama City for medical attention. Even if travel is approved by Panamanian authorities, the cost of transportation and medical services is frequently prohibitive. However, when able, UNHCR, JRS and the ICRC provide financial assistance for airfare, food and lodging for those refugees who must leave to get the medical help they need.

The plight of the PTH population in Jaque is so dire that the RCUSA delegation members were unsure how the group is able to survive at all. It is clear though that the humanitarian assistance provided by the local and national Roman Catholic Church ministries, JRS, a newly established Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) office, and UNHCR plays an invaluable role in the lives of PTH holders.  However, many PTH holders reported that family members had actually made the extremely difficult decision to return to Colombia, in spite of their fears, because of the unsustainable circumstances they are forced to endure in Jaque. 

Contributing to the overall insecurity of Colombian asylum seekers in Jaque is the very visible presence of the militarized border police. Although Jaque is the official port of entry in the Darien, the lack of civilian government presence is conspicuous. The greatest government presence is the constantly patrolling armed police force, resulting in making the community feel very much like an occupied police state.   The police enforce a restrictive curfew on the PTH population and require these refugees to carry their documents on them at all times or face arrest and possible deportation.  Reports of police misconduct and abuse of this confined population were made not only by the refugee population and the handful of humanitarian workers living in the village, but also by another government official.  Reports ranged from unwarranted physical assault on refugees and erroneous confiscation of meager food from the refugee community, to arbitrary detention of refugees and 12-hour long interrogations. Refugees also reported cases of the border police’s improper treatment and sexual exploitation of young, Colombian women and girls living in the community.  In addition, there was only one low-level staff person assigned to work in the local immigration office. While UNHCR and national ONPAR representatives travel to Jaque periodically, refugees expressed concern at the lack of on-going presence and the sense that they have been abandoned.  Most PTH holders have lost hope of obtaining permanent status from the Government of Panama, and NGOs question if the government has the political will to do so.

Durable Solutions

Due to the continued instability in Colombia, voluntary repatriation for Colombian refugees in Panama is currently not a viable durable solution. Therefore, local integration and resettlement are the options that should be pursued at this time.

Local Integration

There are significant barriers to local integration for refugees in Panama. Most are forced to remain in the shadows, lacking documentation and access to legal and social services. Refugees visited throughout the mission were found to be living in grim conditions and were frequently unemployed. Due to the fact that refugees have no right to work or access to health care during the asylum process, UNHCR and many NGOs provide food and other basic assistance. However, assistance levels have been dropping as the Colombian refugee situation becomes a protracted one, without any hope in the foreseeable future for a resolution.  Many NGOs and the government refugee agency spoke of the need for a shelter for refugees and migrants, as well as support for transitional housing.  At the time of the RCUSA delegation visit, the Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church had begun plans to develop a shelter in an effort to meet these needs.

Colombians visited by the delegation in Panama City were struggling to survive and protect their families. They live in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and the levels of criminal violence in some of these areas are so high that police do not even enter some of them.  Many Colombians living in the capital reported discrimination and xenophobia, stating that they are often assumed to be drug dealers, prostitutes or guerilla members. They are frequently harassed by police and threatened with detention or deportation, and accessing quality medical care is also a significant challenge. The obstacles faced by refugees are exacerbated by documentation related issues. The Panamanian government issues letters for asylum applicants. These letters are then followed by an asylum ID card and a refugee ID. Refugees reported experiencing discrimination based on their refugee IDs. They were frequently rejected by employers, landlords and banks because their documentation clearly identified them as Colombians. In addition, the letter and ID cards need to be renewed annually, leaving many refugees with expired documents during the renewal period.  These identification documents do not automatically come with the right to work. Separate work permits are required, and they have their own expiration dates. In an effort to in theory help address these issues, but certainly also as a way to raise additional funds, the Panamanian government has begun to organize “migration fairs” during which a variety of visas are essentially for sale. Visa fees range anywhere from $700 to $3000, depending on the country of origin of applicants, and provide the visa holder with protection from deportation for two years, but they do not guarantee any other basic rights. Most asylum seekers, therefore, live with a high degree of insecurity about their future.

Jaque and the surrounding villages in the Darien are primarily based on subsistence economies. Typical employment in the region includes fishing, farming and collecting sand from the river beds for construction material. As noted earlier, PTH holders are prohibited from moving from one town to another, effectively denying them access to even these basic forms of survival.  Instead, refugees manage by finding occasional domestic work or small construction projects whenever they can.  Because of the overall lack of economic opportunity in the region, Panamanians in the Darien must rely on commerce with Panama City to survive, and there is a high out-migration of Panamanian citizens to the capital.  This depressed local economy severely limits employment or business opportunities, even for those refugees who come with appropriate skills.  One recent asylum seeker said, “I am anchored here and can’t offer myself, my gifts. I was a jeweler in Colombia and organized a jeweler’s association.” Without access to a market, this asylum seeker must rely on charitable support from the local church and residents for survival.

National and international organizations have provided targeted assistance to both PTH holders and asylum seekers through the years.  Nevertheless, these efforts have been insufficient to create the necessary environment to support and sustain refugee integration. While Panamanian President Martinelli has made promises to resolve the situation of these refugees, and a bill that would provide a path to regularization for this discreet group of refugees is pending in the Panamanian Congress, these same promises of resolution have been made before, on at least five different occasions over the last decade, and still no result has been forthcoming.  The PTH refugees have stopped believing that their lives are valued by Panamanian authorities.  They have no hope in the political process and are weary of promises from government officials that have resulted in no tangible or substantial change in their conditions.    

The only national law that has provided a legal means to local integration expired in November 2010 and was not widely available to Colombians.  Law 25, passed in 20088, allowed refugees to apply for permanent residence status if they had been living continuously in Panama since 1998.  This law only applied to those granted refugee status, so Colombians with PTH status did not qualify.  Efforts to extend this law have been unsuccessful and those in the country for less than ten years will have to wait for a new law to be passed.

Resettlement

Although Panamanian law recognizes the right of UNHCR to recognize refugees under their mandate, UNHCR has only referred 20 individuals for resettlement since 2005 and currently has no process in place to recognize refugees outside the failing national system. Therefore, currently, resettlement is not a realistic option for Colombian refugees in Panama. The RCUSA delegation believes that since voluntary return to Colombia is not practical and local integration in Panama remains elusive for many, UNHCR should establish and implement a resettlement program for Colombian refugees in Panama. Without real local integration opportunities and a functioning resettlement program, Colombian refugees in Panama are essentially left without access to any durable solution.



[1] The word “refugee” is used broadly to talk about all of the Colombians in need of protection, except where otherwise noted to distinguish among the different types of status offered by the Panamanian government.

[2] UNHCR fact sheet.           

[3] It should be noted that the Commission had met three times in 2010 before our visit and met once more in November when it made the controversial decision to grant asylum to Maria del Pilar Hurtado, the former director of Colombia's intelligence agency who was under criminal investigation in Colombia for ordering the illegal wiretapping of Supreme Court magistrates, journalists, politicians, and human rights organizations.  She was one of the only Colombian nationals granted asylum in Panama in 2010. 

[4] Ley de Migracion del 2008 El Decreto Ley No. 3 de 22 de febrero de 2008

[5] 2010 budget provides $600,000 to assist 2,500 refugees.

[6] UNHCR reported only five unaccompanied minors in 2009 and zero in 2010.  One NGO reported working with two  unaccompanied children, while another NGO reported referring six Somali adolescents to a youth shelter.

[7] "Voluntary repatriation? Panamanian government returning Colombian refugees" Project Counseling Service, Colombia Regional Report: Boundaries, 18 December, 2003 http://www.pcslatin.org/publicaciones2/14/Repatriation%20of%20refugees%20ENGLISH.pdf

[8] Law 25 was established to respond to Salvadoran and Nicaraguan asylum seekers in Panama.


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