Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 November 2017, 15:02 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Panama

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2003
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Panama , 1 June 2003, available at: [accessed 21 November 2017]
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 1,700 refugees at the end of 2002. These included 700 recognized refugees (of whom 49 Colombians and 4 others were newly recognized during 2002), 100 asylum seekers whose claims were pending, and 900 Colombians who had Temporary Humanitarian Status (THS). The recognized refugees included 300 persons from El Salvador, 200 from Nicaragua, 100 from Colombia, and 100 from Cuba; the remainder were from various other countries. More than 60,000 Colombians were living in Panama in refugee-like circumstances.

Most of the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan refugees have lived in Panama for many years, while a majority of the Colombian refugees and people in refugee-like circumstances have entered Panama since the late 1990s.


Panama is party to the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol and has incorporated the Convention's provisions into national law. In 1998, Panama adopted Executive Decree 23, which established a system for determining refugee status, along with protection and assistance measures for recognized refugees.

Decree 23 established the National Commission for the Protection of Refugees to adjudicate asylum claims. The Commission, which meets a few times per year, includes representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Labor, and Justice, as well as the national Police and Red Cross. The National Office for the Attention of Refugees (ONPAR) is charged with providing refugees with humanitarian assistance.

Decree 23 also introduced a new category of limited protection, THS, for people who flee situations of generalized violence, but who might not qualify individually as refugees under the Refugee Convention. THS is granted for two months, but is renewable.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), THS "falls short of international standards" because its eligibility criteria are not clearly defined, nor are the rights accorded its grantees. Further, the decree does not guarantee UNHCR access to applicants and calls for bilateral repatriation agreements with governments of countries of origin.

ONPAR prescreens Colombians who enter overland into Darien and San Blas provinces and, rather than substantively assess the merit of their asylum claim, routinely accords them THS (in some cases, ONPAR denies THS). ONPAR rarely refers any Colombians who enter overland to the National Commission for the Protection of Refugees for refugee status determination, thus denying them access to the full protections of refugee status. Decree 23 does not make any provision for persons to appeal ONPAR's decisions.

Decree 23, has a more restrictive definition than the UN Refugee Convention of who qualifies as a refugee. It does not recognize fear of persecution by non-state agents as grounds for asylum, making Panama the only country in Latin America with such a restrictive position.

Even those Colombians who do manage to petition for asylum and whose cases are heard by the Commission risk being rejected, since a large majority of them fled Colombia due to persecution, threats, or violence perpetrated by paramilitary and guerrilla groups.

The government restricts freedom of movement of THS beneficiaries, and sometimes does not provide them documentation as to their status. They have a difficult time finding work, and many of their children do not attend school. The authorities also harass, abuse, and detain them, often accusing them of having links to Colombian paramilitary or guerrilla groups.

UNHCR has repeatedly urged Panama to amend the provisions of Decree 23 that deny full protection to refugees. In April, the National Commission for the Protection of Refugees decided that Decree 23 should be revised. At the Commission's request, UNHCR sponsored a workshop attended by representatives of the Panamanian government and former directors of ONPAR to discuss ways that Decree 23 could be brought in line with international standards. At year's end, however, the revision process was stalled because of Panama's National Security Council's concerns about security along the border with Colombia.

Colombians with THS

Most of the estimated 900 Colombians with THS entered Panama in 1999 and early 2000, although about 100 have been in Panama since 1997. UNHCR assists many of them through local churches, non-governmental organizations, and through ONPAR. A majority are Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples. The assistance and international attention that the refugees receive has contributed to tension between the Colombians and local people in the Darien region.

In 2002, following the breakdown of peace talks between the Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas, the Panamanian authorities strengthened their presence in the Darien region in anticipation of new outbreaks of violence in Colombia and an increase in the number of Colombians seeking refuge. UNHCR also intensified its monitoring in the region and communications with partner organizations in order to ensure a coordinated humanitarian response in the event of a new, large-scale refugee influx.

Only small groups of Colombian asylum seekers entered Panama during the year, however, and were detected. In May, 60 Colombian civilians entered the Punusa region of the Darien. The group – more than half children – fled violence in the Uraba region of Colombia between guerrillas and paramilitaries that resulted in hundreds of casualties.

Colombians in Refugee-Like Circumstances

Besides the Colombians who are recognized as refugees and those with THS, tens of thousands of other Colombians who may have fled Colombia for reasons similar to those of refugees were living in Panama.

Many were without refugee status or THS, and therefore subject to detention to deportation. According to UNHCR, although ONPAR "has an obligation to periodically register the arrival of persons who could qualify for THS, in practice such registration rarely takes place." It says that ONPAR officials, who are based in Panama City, rarely travel to some border areas and never travel to others. Consequently, "few individual cases in the rural area have been duly registered with the temporal protection regime."

For some Colombian asylum seekers, ONPAR's lack of presence at the border results in their being detained by the police for entering "illegally." According to UNHCR, they "face appalling treatment both prior to and during detention." The police and immigration authorities in border areas often make decisions to deport these individuals that are "arbitrary and contrary to Panamanian law."

The number of Colombians in refugee-like circumstances in need of protection in Panama is significantly higher than the number who are recognized as refugees or have THS.

The Colombian consul in Panama City estimates that some 66,000 Colombians live in Panama, many without documentation. The consul further estimates, based upon material data, that three of every ten Colombians who Panama deports to Colombia because they lack documentation are persons who were in need of international protection (and who were therefore refouled). Assuming that the three-in-ten rate applies similarly to the estimated 66,000 undocumented Colombians in Panama, about 20,000 of them should be considered to be persons in refugee-like circumstances subject to detention and deportation. According to UNHCR, the conditions of detention are so poor that it raises "serious concerns about the human rights of those detained."

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