Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 January 2018, 09:04 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Panama

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 January 1999
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Panama , 1 January 1999, available at: [accessed 23 January 2018]
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 1,300 refugees in 1998. Among them were 600 Colombians and 700 others of diverse nationalities, including Nigerians, Sudanese, Algerians, Peruvians, and Cubans. In addition, more than 7,000 other Colombians were living in Panama in refugee-like circumstances.

Panama is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol, and permits UNHCR a voice in its National Protection Commission, the government agency responsible for processing refugee applications. Panama is also a signatory to the Cartagena Declaration, but the Panamanian government told USCR that it does not apply what it termed the Declaration's "much broader" definition of refugees when considering asylum applications. On various occasions, UNHCR and the Panamanian government have differed on whether groups of Colombian asylum seekers qualified as refugees. Because of those differences, UNHCR has, on occasion, withheld aid from the government of Panama.

Colombian Refugees

According to the National Organization for Refugee Attention (ONPAR), there were 600 Colombian asylum seekers in Panama at the end of 1998, including 60 newly arrived during the year. Most lived in the Darien region, in Kuna Yala and Embera districts. ONPAR had interviewed the 600 and granted them temporary refuge under a new statute enacted in 1998, the "Humanitarian Statute for Temporary Protection." ONPAR noted that the number could be higher, however, since some Colombians who would have qualified for protection may not have come forward to seek it.

In 1997, USCR reported that more than 10,000 Colombians were living in Panama in refugee-like circumstances. The Panamanian government later refuted these figures. However, they said that according to ONPAR, some 7,000 Colombians lived in Panama with legal migrant status obtained through the 1994 Migratory Regularization Act. ONPAR itself acknowledged that, when Colombians first registered for migrant status under the 1994 Act, some of the 7,000 stated that they had originally entered Panama fleeing the violence in Colombia. That being the case, and not knowing if these people hoped to return to Colombia, USCR considered them to be living in refugee-like circumstances.

USCR also reported in 1997 that Panama had forcibly returned 90 Colombian asylum seekers. The government of Panama confirmed the forcible returns. It told USCR that it interviewed an unspecified number of refugee applicants in 1997 who did not qualify as Convention refugees. Panama arrived at that determination because the Colombians had not been persecuted by the Colombian government, but by nonstate actors. The government said that it provided the Colombians humanitarian assistance for four months, and then returned them to Colombia after the government of Colombia agreed to look after them. USCR rejects the interpretation that persecution by nonstate actors is an invalid ground for seeking asylum, however, and continues to consider the 1997 returns refoulement.

Incursions into Panamanian territory by Colombian armed groups led to the temporary displacement of several hundred Panamanians in January 1998. According to the Economist, the Colombian military and Colombian paramilitaries were operating in Panamanian territory in an attempt to cut off Colombian guerrillas groups' supply lines. On August 3, El Siglo reported armed clashes between Colombian paramilitary groups and the Panamanian National Police in the Darien region.

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