Panama hosted approximately 1,300 refugees at the end of 2000, of whom 630 were refugees recognized by the government or the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and 680 were Colombians whom Panama granted temporary humanitarian status. A majority of the 630 recognized as refugees were Central Americans (283 Salvadorans and 180 Nicaraguans) and Cubans (68) who have lived in Panama for many years. The remainder are more recent arrivals of diverse nationalities, including 25 Colombians. UNHCR assisted in the repatriation of 212 Colombians during the year.
Panama is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol. In 1998, the government established asylum procedures. Under the terms of "Decree 23," the National Commission for the Protection of Refugees became responsible for determining asylum claims. Panama permits asylum applicants found to be refugees to remain in the country. During the year, 89 persons applied for asylum in Panama. A large majority, 74, were Colombians. The Panamanian authorities granted refugee status to only 5 of the asylum applicants. They rejected 31 (all Colombians), and at year's end were still considering the applications of 50 others.
Decree 23 also permits the Panamanian authorities to grant temporary refuge to people who flee situations of generalized violence but who might not qualify as refugees under the Refugee Convention.
The Colombian Bishops' Conference and the International Organization for Migration carried out a study of Colombians with temporary humanitarian status in February 2000. A majority were from the Colombian town of Juradó. Some fled to Panama in mid-1999 after being warned by Colombian soldiers that paramilitaries or guerrillas might attack them because each group accused Juradó's residents of aiding the other side. Others fled in December 1999 after guerrillas attacked Juradó, destroyed houses, and looted shops. The refugees from Juradó were sheltered in Jaqué and Biroquerá, in Panama's Darien jungle region. They received assistance from UNHCR, the Panamanian authorities, local NGOs, and local churches. Sixty percent of the refugees were Afro-Colombians, and 17 percent were indigenous peoples.
About 100 of the Colombians with temporary humanitarian status had been in Panama since 1997. They were living in Yape and Yaviza, also in the Darien. Almost all had documents showing that the Panamanian authorities had granted them temporary protection.
There has been some tension between local people and the Colombian refugees because of the assistance and international attention that the latter have received. Despite that assistance, however, refugees say that their lives remain difficult. Some told the New York Times that most have not found work, that they are not allowed to travel outside town to seek work, and that their children do not attend school.
During the year, Panama granted temporary humanitarian status to 122 newly arrived Colombians; 212 Colombians with the status repatriated during the year. As of December 31, an estimated 680 Colombians had temporary humanitarian status in Panama.