Panama hosted 1,770 refugees and asylum seekers as of December 31, 2003. Included in this total were 810 refugees, 50 asylum seekers, 720 with Temporary Humanitarian Status (THS), and 190 others of concern to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Some 1050 of the above were Colombians. Approximately 500 long-staying refugees from Nicaragua and El Salvador still have not gained residency status. People continued to arrive fleeing Colombia's conflict, with estimates of at least 20,000 Colombians living in refugee-like circumstances.

The refugee status determination commission did not review any cases in 2003, the government did not grant any new people THS, and the refugee service agency only recorded 91 asylum seekers. It accepted only 19, 18 of them Colombian, leaving 50 pending claims including applications from previous years.

Panama is party to the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol, but implementing legislation does not recognize persecution by non-state actors, a major roadblock for Colombians fleeing to Panama. THS only lasts two months, although it is renewable and does not include freedom of movement or grant access to refugee status determinations. Despite these shortcomings, Panama signed an agreement with UNHCR, increasing UN assistance to refugees and others fleeing the Colombian conflict.

The Colombia-Panama border saw frequent flows of people and increasing conflict during 2003, with paramilitaries even attacking people across the border in Panama. In January 300 indigenous Panamanians were internally displaced for approximately a week due to armed attacks. The majority of Colombians arrived undocumented and was subject to detention, often in appalling conditions, and to deportation. Some were encouraged to participate in return programs.

Panama forcibly returned 110 Colombians in April. Human rights groups and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights criticized the return. Panama and Colombia organized another return of 84 people in December to Choco Department bordering Panama with UNHCR and the U.S. government observing and calling the return voluntary. Amnesty International and the Colombian group Justicia y Paz criticized the return because of the continued conflict in Choco and the Panamanian authorities' unwillingness to give them access to an asylum process or other form of protection.


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