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Refugees in Panama face long road to stability
Wednesday, September 04, 2013

JRS staff members listen as a Colombian refugee relates her story in Panama City. The work of JRS begins with accompaniment, with the process of getting to know refugees and gaining their trust. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
View or download an interactive PDF of this issue of The Refugee Voice.
Colombian refugees in Panama face severe stigmatization. Despite the fact that they are refugees, they are not greeted as people who have suffered and deserve international protection. Instead, they are often viewed as people who brought the ill effects of war across the border into Panama with them.

(Panama City) September 4, 2013 — Panama and other countries in the region have long felt the spillover effects of the armed conflict in Colombia. Since the fighting began in the early 1960s, more than five million Colombians have been internally displaced; another 400,000 have fled to other countries seeking international protection, with 113,605 officially recognized as refugees by UNHCR (as of December 2011). For decades, Panama has been receiving—and in some cases expelling—refugees fleeing violence.

Despite the ongoing peace negotiations between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerilla group, displacements both within the country and across international borders have not slowed. Newly arrived refugees in Panama report recent threats and attacks by guerillas, neo-paramilitaries and other armed groups. In 2012 alone, 256,590 people were displaced within Colombia according to a report from the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), and those seeking international protection continued to stream across the borders of neighboring countries.

While the majority of Panama’s refugees are Colombian, Panama has also seen an increase in recent years of people fleeing the growing violence in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, and continues to receive a small but steady number of people from further away, the so-called "extra-continentals," from as far away as Afghanistan and Nigeria.

Although Panama receives many people in need of international protection as a result of its geography, Panama is also a desirable destination as one of the countries in Latin America with the highest annual growth rate.

Formerly a part of Colombia, Panama seceded in 1903, paving the way for the U.S. to build the Panama Canal. One hundred years later, the canal is the engine driving the Panamanian economy — which is now the fastest growing in Central America, according to the International Monetary Fund. The growth is fueled by a project to expand the canal—allowing larger ships to transit between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans — and massive infrastructure projects like the elevated train/subway line being constructed in Panama City.

The booming economy and all that it promises is reflected in the scores of skyscrapers rising from the shores of the Pacific Ocean in Panama City.  Unfortunately, that same boom contributes to the perception that many refugees are not seeking protection, but rather economic opportunity.


Colombian refugees in Panama face severe stigmatization. Despite the fact that they are refugees, they are not greeted as people who have suffered and deserve international protection. Instead, they are often viewed as people who brought the ill effects of war across the border into Panama with them. The perception is often that people must have done something to deserve being targeted and persecuted by one of the armed groups: men are often assumed to be involved in narcotics trafficking and women are assumed to be prostitutes. As difficult as these stereotypes are for adults, particularly when it comes to finding work, they can be devastating to children.

In Colón, one woman tells us that for the last two years, her 10-year-old daughter has not wanted to attend school because the other children taunt her daily. She says "the future is going to be better. I always tell my kids, you have to prepare yourself, you have to study. You have to love and value your studies so that you can be a professional."

The optimism and hope of this mother is an example of the great resiliency of so many refugees in Panama, but the resiliency is threatened by discrimination that discourages her children from believing there is a productive future for them in their new country.


The detention of migrants, asylum seekers and recognized refugees, is of particular concern. People can be detained for up to 18 months, and they often have very little information about their rights, the status of their case, or how to access legal support. In the detention center outside of Panama City, we met a young man whose story unfortunately illustrates many failings of the detention system in Panama.

In Colombia, Diego* was carjacked and kidnapped by the FARC. He managed to escape and tried to report the event to multiple authorities in Colombia, but was finally told that the Colombian government would not be able to protect him. Desperate and fearing for his life, he fled into Panama on foot. As soon as he encountered Panamanian officials, he turned himself in and requested asylum. Rather than being referred to the National Office for Refugees (ONPAR), he was turned over to the National Migration Service and placed in detention.

Another young man tells a depressingly similar story. A college graduate and small business owner, Luis* was unable to pay the vacunas — literally "vaccines" — to protect him and his family from punishment by armed groups. Already displaced several times within Colombia, he applied for his passport, but was advised by Colombian authorities that it would take too long to process and that he should flee without it to guarantee his safety. Like Diego, he crossed into Panama on foot through the Darien jungle. Upon encountering SENAFRON, the Panamanian Border Patrol, he also requested asylum. He, too, was handed over to the National Migration Service rather than ONPAR, and was also placed into detention.

On three occasions, Panama has tried to process his deportation from the detention center. Each time, he has reminded them that he is in the process of being recognized as a refugee and calls on ONPAR to halt the deportation. While this has thus far protected Luis, he has an unusually high level of education and knowledge about his rights, highlighting the extreme vulnerability and almost certain return that many Colombian refugees in his situation would face. 

In light of these conditions, Jesuit Refugee Service calls on the Panamanian government to ensure that all migration authorities and SENAFRON are trained to refer people requesting asylum to ONPAR, that people in the process of applying for asylum are not deported, and that organizations like JRS who educate people about their rights and provide legal assistance be granted access to all detention centers. Furthermore, as there is currently no established protocol for responding to unaccompanied children, the Panamanian government should develop such a procedure and train all relevant officials in it, fully acknowledging the particular rights, needs, and vulnerabilities of children.

Broken asylum system

ONPAR oversees the application process of those seeking to be recognized as refugees. This office acts as first filter, either disqualifying cases before they enter into the full process, or after an extensive interview and documentation process, recommending them to the National Protection Commission for a final decision.

The rates of recognition under the current system are extremely low. Thirteen percent of cases are accepted into the full process after passing the eligibility screening and only six percent of those who began the process are ultimately granted status.

When asked about their experience with ONPAR, refugees reported they felt intimidated and disrespected during their interviews and that the level of corruption within the office was high. Worse, many reported the ONPAR staff were careless with their documentation and often lost it. For people who have fled their country of origin seeking safety, this is devastating as they are often unable to get a second copy of crucial documents like birth certificates or land titles.

Refugees applying for status are also confronted with a bureaucratic morass. When one such refugee, John*, applied for status, he was given a document protecting him from deportation and detention valid for one month. Several days before it expired, John returned to ONPAR to have it renewed, but was told that since he still had several days of validity left, he should return later. When he returned several days later to try again to renew his document, he found the office closed and he was informed that it would remain so for two weeks, and that no one would be attending refugee or applicants during this time. Several days later, after his paper expired, John was stopped by the police and required to present his papers. Because his document was expired, he was taken to detention.

JRS identifies the constant turnover of staff and the fact that most posts within ONPAR are political appointments as two key weaknesses. The adjudication of applications to be recognized as a refugee requires highly specialized knowledge about international and national law and procedure. While UNHCR offers periodic training to the people in these positions, the constant change in personnel makes the maintenance of a qualified staff a consistent obstacle in the pursuit of a fair and efficient process. With this barrier in mind, JRS recommends that ONPAR be staffed by people with technical expertise, not just political appointees.

Lack of documentation and employment 

Throughout the process of applying to be recognized as a refugee, the lack of adequate documentation is a pervasive problem. When people first apply, they are given a certification letter that protects them from being forcibly returned for 30 days. If they are part of the lucky 13% who are accepted into the full process, they are then given a document that lasts for six months. The appeals process for people denied asylum is convoluted and confusing, as described in the RCUSA report of March 2011 (and a June 2013 update of that report).

Unfortunately, most of the refugees with whom JRS works have been in the process for at least two years, leaving them without valid documentation for the majority of the process. Even when the documents are valid, they don’t include the right to work. When the process drags on for months and often years, this forces refugees to work illegally in the informal economy in order to survive.

For refugees who are successfully recognized by the Panamanian government, their troubles with documentation are far from over. Within the current system, receiving recognition as a refugee and receiving a work permit are two completely separate processes.

One refugee says that it can take up to four months to get a work permit — which lasts for one year — adding that it "almost isn’t worth the trouble to get one. When you need it because they ask you for it, you don’t have it. You explain to your boss that it is because it is in the process, but he says that he can’t [hire you] without it."

For many refugees, the inability to work is the most frustrating thing of all. No one flees their home country to beg on the streets of another.

"'The only thing we ask for is the chance to work' is what [refugees] say. It’s an issue of dignity and reclamation of their rights as [people] capable of creating a new life for themselves and their families after having had their lives violated and interrupted by political violence," said Erideñia Martinez of JRS Panama.

During a support group meeting, a refugee woman emphasizes this point saying, "Many of us who come here really want to work. But since we are here without [recognized] status, we can’t; we don’t have the right."

In recognition of these difficulties, JRS supports linking refugee status determination and the work permit so that they are provided at the same time, and removing the word "refugee" from identity documents in order to minimize discrimination in the labor market.

Sexual and Gender Based Violence

The stereotype that Colombian women are all prostitutes puts them at an extreme risk of sex trafficking and abuse. For women who are forced into survival sex, their lack of refugee status makes them highly vulnerable to abuse and violence. In some cases, this can result in women being trafficked. In order to begin to address this concern, JRS created a referral system with community health centers throughout Panama City. First, JRS trained staff on how to identify and initially treat trafficking victims. Then, if the trafficked women are interested in further assistance, they are referred to JRS for additional support.

It continues to be extremely difficult to help survivors of trafficking. Until 2012, there wasn’t a law making trafficking illegal, which made it nearly impossible to successfully prosecute traffickers. Even now, there is no significant and systematic government protection for survivors. In the absence of such a system, the risk that survivors will be identified by abusers and re-trafficked is horrifically high.

JRS response

It is within this difficult environment that JRS Panama works. In the words of Ana Lorena, JRS Panama’s National Director, "we can’t always open the door, because that’s ultimately the job of the Panamanian government, but we do our best to open a window."

Supported by a grant from the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, JRS Panama administers several programs to help refugees. Counseling, humanitarian assistance, income generating activities, legal aid and advocacy on detention and asylum issues are some of the methods JRS uses to help these vulnerable people.

The work of JRS begins with accompaniment, which, as described by Eredeñia Martinez, the Director of Accompaniment for JRS Panama, begins with the process of getting to know refugees and gaining their trust.

"The first time that they come to the JRS office, we do an interview in which we try to listen, see and understand what their experience has been and why they are seeking asylum, and then offer them the immediate assistance they need," Martinez said.

JRS provides a small sum of money to help newly arrived refugees to pay for their first month of rent. However, this is often only enough money to rent a room in unsafe neighborhoods. Even with this support, many families, particularly female-headed households, are caught in a terrible bind. In these dangerous neighborhoods, mothers are afraid to leave their children, but they also must seek work in order to begin stabilizing the family.

"And this is very difficult…I have three children and I live in a place…that is in completely bad shape. There are holes in the roof. The roof is huge. I've found 11 new pieces but the roof is too big. I can’t leave my children to go find more materials…. Without your papers, you can't do anything. You’re stuck."

Legal assistance

In addition to the challenges recently arrived refugees face in terms of meeting the basics needs of themselves and their families, they face economic and legal difficulties.

Sitting in a large circle with other women in the support group, Elena* speaks up saying, “you have to have a lawyer to really move your case forward, but I can’t afford one.”

While the staff at JRS Panama are not able to meet the incredible need of thousands of refugees for legal assistance, they do take on many cases and help refugees track down their identity documents and correctly submit their applications for refugee status recognition, and do the necessary follow-up work with ONPAR in order to get a final decision. Many refugees, however, have no choice but to navigate the system without legal assistance or representation.

Income generating activities

Income generating activities are also an important component of JRS' accompaniment work, particularly in light of the challenges refugees face in the formal labor market. Among women heads of household, the desire to work is palpable. "[It is] frustrating to be in a country with such richness but not be able to access it; all we can do is survive," says one woman. Another woman adds, "As Colombians, we’re not accustomed to having to ask for things." A third woman chimes in, "we don’t want to live on handouts from NGOs; we want something of our own."

By providing small cash loans and grants, JRS helps refugees start their own simple businesses. Some use the cash assistance to acquire the raw materials to make clothes or crafts to sell; others purchase ingredients and rent food carts to sell meals and snacks on the street. 

In Colón, Marco and Ofelia, who have started a bakery in their home, are an example of the power of this small investment. Rising well before the sun, the husband and wife cook fresh pastries and bring them to the market before it opens at 5:30 a.m. each day. After spending the morning selling, they buy the flour, sugar and meat necessary to prepare the next day’s goods. Their afternoons are filled with preparation: making dough and preparing the meats so they can begin to cook again upon awakening the next day. Although the labor is intensive and the reward small, Marco and Ofelia have a long term plan to improve their situation. Currently, their oven takes up a quarter of one of the rooms in their three-room home, with just a foot or two of clearance between the ceiling and oven. With help from JRS, they hope to expand their business by purchasing a larger stove and working from an actual business site, and not their home.

Through the income generating programs and by advocating for improved government response to the needs of urban refugees in Panama, JRS hopes that Marco and Ofelia and the thousands more like them will be able to move toward self-sufficiency and full integration into their new community.

Psychosocial support

A final component of JRS' work is psychosocial support, absolutely crucial to bolster the resiliency of refugees who are suffering from insecurity, fear, separation anxiety, sadness and dislocation. As a counselor who works with these refugees reminds us, "they have been persecuted; they had to leave quickly; they had to leave everything behind: their belongings, their house, their community, even their children in some cases. More than anything else, this space offers an opportunity for them to process their experiences. This is the initial step in a line that leads to them knowing their rights, learning the legal system here, [and] building their self-esteem."

"I'm still in the process of seeing whether or not they are going to approve my request for asylum," a young mother in Colón told us. "But in the meantime, I'm making sure that my children receive an education. As a single mother, all I want is for my children to be able to move ahead in life. I want to them to know that there is a God who has helped us get this far who will continue to be with us."

The determination, resiliency, and hope in the face of trauma perversely act as a barrier to these refugees accessing the protection they deserve. Almost without exception, when the women are asked why they left their country of origin, they respond that they wanted to seguir adelante, or press forward; to improve their situation and find a better life for themselves and their families. While this outlook will undoubtedly help them cope in the months and years to come, it often results in their being screened out of the process when they seek refugee status.

School support

There are many barriers to educational access for the children of refugees. It is difficult for families to obtain their children’s school records from their country of origin, children are often out of school for prolonged periods of time during the displacement itself, and the cost of uniforms and books is often beyond the reach of these incredibly poor families.

JRS staff conduct workshops for teachers to explain to them the particular assets and vulnerabilities of refugee children. JRS and ONPAR support a program currently being considered by the Ministry of Education which would allow the Ministry to assess refugee children to determine their appropriate grade level or that they have completed their coursework, in the absence of school records from their country of origin.

* Names have been changed for security reasons.

Recommendations for Action

The international community should:

• Recognize that despite the ongoing peace process, displacement from the Colombian armed conflict continues and that Colombia’s neighbors continue to require support to respond to the protection needs of newly arrived refugees.

• Continue to fund assistance programs for refugees within Panama and support the resettlement of particularly vulnerable refugees.

• Raise concerns about the flawed refugee status determination procedure and urge the Panamanian government to streamline it and make it more transparent.

The Panamanian government should:

• Ensure all migration authorities and SENAFRON (Panamanian Border Patrol) are trained to refer people requesting asylum to ONPAR; that people in the process of applying for asylum are not deported and that NGOs who educate people about their rights and provide legal assistance be granted access to all detention centers.

• Standardize procedures and require migration and law enforcement authorities to verify the status of foreign detainees upon detention to ensure that no person in need of international protection is deported in violation of the non-refoulement principle and obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

• Develop a procedure to respond to unaccompanied children and train all relevant officials in it, fully acknowledging the particular rights, needs and vulnerabilities of children.

• Use the eligibility screening to exclude only those applications based on manifestly unqualified, abusive, or illegitimate claims, not as a filter that prevents the majority of cases from entering the full process.

• Provide longer-term (one or two year) documentation for those in the process of applying for refugee status; link refugee status determination and the work permit so they are provided at the same time; and remove the word refugee from identity documents to minimize discrimination.

• Develop mechanisms to protect and rehabilitate victims of trafficking and prosecute traffickers.

By Mary Small, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Assistant Director for Policy 
and Christian Fuchs, JRS/USA Communications Director

Thanks to Jesuit Refugee Service Panama and Jesuit Refugee Service Latin America & Caribbean for their assistance on this report.

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