Last Updated: Friday, 26 December 2014, 13:50 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Panama

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 10 June 2002
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Panama , 10 June 2002, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3d04c1514.html [accessed 29 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Panama hosted approximately 1,500 refugees at the end of 2001. These included about 680 recognized refugees (277 from El Salvador, 174 from Nicaragua, 85 from Colombia, 70 from Cuba, and the remainder from various other countries), approximately 800 Colombian asylum seekers who have a "temporary humanitarian status," and 63 asylum applicants (25 from Colombia and 38 from various other countries) whose claims were pending at year's end. Most of the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan refugees have lived in Panama for many years, while a majority of the Colombian refugees and asylum seekers have entered Panama since the late 1990s.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) assisted in the repatriation of 67 Colombians during the year. According to CODHES (Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement), a Colombian human rights group, the Panamanian authorities forcibly returned more than 400 Colombians who may have been asylum seekers.

Panama is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol. The National Eligibility Commission determines asylum claims. During 2001, the Eligibility Commission adjudicated 80 asylum claims (76 from Colombians) and granted refugee status to 60 persons (53 Colombians and 7 others). At year's end, the commission was still considering the claims of 63 asylum applicants.

In 1998, Panama adopted "Decree 23," which authorizes Panamanian officials to grant temporary refuge to groups of people who flee situations of generalized violence, but who might not qualify individually as refugees under the Refugee Convention. The status is granted for two months, but is renewable. According to UNHCR, the temporary protection accorded by Decree 23 "falls short of international standards" because it does not define the eligibility criteria for temporary protection or the rights accorded persons granted temporary protection. Further, the decree does not guarantee UNHCR access to these persons, and calls for bilateral repatriation agreements with governments of countries of origin.

Panama enacted Decree 23 specifically to deny refugee status to Colombian asylum seekers entering overland into Panama's inaccessible Darien jungle region. Under the terms of the decree, Panamanian authorities can "pre-screen" asylum seekers to determine if their claims have sufficient merit to be referred to the Eligibility Commission for adjudication. The Panamanian authorities routinely consider the asylum claims of all Colombians who reach the Darien (whether in groups or individually) to be unfounded, accord them temporary humanitarian status, and never refer them to the Eligibility Commission.

Most of the estimated 800 Colombians with temporary humanitarian status entered Panama in 1999 and early 2000, although about 100 have been in Panama since 1997. UNHCR assists many of them through local churches, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the Panamanian government's National Office for Refugees. A majority are Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples.

Tension exists between the Colombians and local people in the Darien, in part because of the assistance and international attention that the refugees receive. Despite that assistance, refugees say that their lives are difficult. The authorities routinely harass and sometimes mistreat them, and do not permit the refugees to travel outside of the town of Jaque, where most of them live, to seek work or plant crops. Many refugee children do not attend school.

Developments in 2001

In January 2001, 150 Colombians fled to Jaque from their homes in the Colombian town of Jurado after left-wing guerrillas belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) assassinated Jurado's mayor.

In late May, UNHCR facilitated the repatriation of a small group of Colombians from Jaque. Local and international NGOs denounced the repatriation, saying that the local authorities had pressured the refugees to return.

In June, the new mayor of Jurado visited Jaque to encourage more Colombians to repatriate. Both the NGOs and UNHCR expressed concern, noting that since neither the Colombian police nor the Colombian military had reestablished a permanent presence in Jurado, the mayor's call was premature. Nevertheless, some refugees indicated a desire to repatriate.

UNHCR convened tripartite meetings with the Panamanian and Colombian authorities at which all parties agreed to a series of steps intended to guarantee the voluntary nature of the repatriation. The steps included providing the Colombians more information about their rights in Panama, the repatriation process, and assistance that the Colombian government promised refugees upon return, and granting UNHCR greater access to the Colombians throughout the process. The parties agreed on dates for additional repatriation movements in September and December.

In early September, UNHCR visited the refugees scheduled to depart and ascertained that most still wished to repatriate. According to UNHCR, the refugees said they wanted to repatriate for a variety of reasons, including "to escape maltreatment by Jaque's authorities, lack of sufficient employment opportunities, [and for] family reasons."

International and local NGOs believed that the refugees' stated reasons for wanting to return demonstrated that their decision was based on inadequate protection and assistance in Panama. Based on that information, and on concern for the refugees' safety upon their return, the NGOs called on the Panamanian government and UNHCR to cancel the repatriations. The repatriations preceded as scheduled, however, a move that the NGOs forcefully protested. Altogether, 67 Colombians repatriated in May and September. UNHCR asserts that the repatriations were voluntary.

In October, another 15 Colombians fled from Jurado to Jaque after right-wing Colombian paramilitaries attacked the town. The Panamanian authorities forcibly returned one of the Colombians, claiming that he was a guerrilla. According to UNHCR, "apparently many more inhabitants of Jurado would have opted for displacement to Panama". [but] many expressed fear that they would be rejected upon arrival in Panama by the local Panamanian Border Police."

Shortly afterward, UNHCR interviewed the refugees scheduled to repatriate in December, and all but one refugee said that they no longer wished to return home. UNHCR told the Panamanian government that the agency could not participate in the December repatriation because of deteriorating security conditions in Jurado.

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