Panama hosted 11,500 refugees and asylum seekers, 10,800 from Colombia, and the rest from El Salvador, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Rural indigenous groups and Afro-Colombians comprised a significant percentage of those fleeing the Colombian conflict. There were around 1,900 recognized refugees, over 500 asylum seekers, and nearly 400 asylum applicants.
Between January and March, Panama arrested and deported more than 300 migrants including 166 Colombians, but Panama did not permit the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to screen them for fear of return. Panamanian officials also turned back asylum seekers at the southern border town of Puerto Obaldía.
The deportation procedure at the international airport took as little as two hours and UNHCR and the Office of National Protection for Refugees (ONPAR) had no access to monitor them nor were they at remote border locations.
In March, three children died and over 500 people lost their homes in a fire in a predominantly Colombian neighborhood in Panama City. Police suspected arson connected to a gang war. Two months later, another 355 people, mainly displaced Colombians, lost their homes in another fire.
Panamanian law (Decree 23/1998) provided for granting of asylum or refugee status in conformity with the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The Ministry of Governance and Justice implemented the refugee status determination procedure through its secretariat, ONPAR. ONPAR officials could summarily reject any asylum claims they found manifestly unfounded or abusive, and eliminated 90 percent of asylum applicants at this stage. ONPAR officials often gave rejected applicants merely verbal information about denials or had them sign the decision and sometimes told them no appeal was possible. Rejected applicants had only an accelerated appeal to the same staff who heard the initial request, instead of the administrative review required by Panama's General Administrative Code.
If ONPAR permitted a case to proceed, the National Commission for the Protection of Refugees (the Commission) voted on official recognition of an applicant's claim. Rejected applicants could appeal the Commission's ruling, first to the same body, then to the Minister of Governance and Justice, and finally to the courts but no case had ever used the last two options.
The Commission received 22 cases and recognized 47 persons as refugees, 45 of them Colombian. In September, ONPAR announced it would grant permanent residency permits to 409 refugees living in Panama for over 15 years, and would establish a commission to examine the cases of 800 Colombians settled in the Darien region.
Panama also granted temporary humanitarian protection (THP) under a 1998 decree to all persons who entered Panama fleeing persecution by non-state actors, such as paramilitaries and guerillas. THP lasted only two months, but authorities generally did not enforce the time limit. Around 540 Afro-Colombians, who had 360 dependents, including some Panamanian citizens, held THP status.
Detention/Access to Courts
In May, Panamanian police and National Migration Office personnel arrested between 75 and 160 migrants of different nationalities in Panama City. Authorities jailed one recognized refugee for delinquency, but he received legal representation. UNHCR did not always learn about the detention of persons in need of protection, but its personnel periodically visited detention centers. It could not monitor migration centers in areas such as La Palma, Darien, and Chiriqui.
Asylum applicants normally had to wait two months to receive documentation showing they had filed for asylum. Refugees received a one-year, renewable identity card that Government and security officials did not always recognize. Those under THP received their card from ONPAR rather than the Migration Department, as they did not have migratory status.
Freedom of Movement and Residence
Individuals with THP status could leave their assigned areas only with permission from the Migration Department. The assigned areas were frequently remote villages that lacked basic health and educational services.
Most asylum seekers and refugees lived in Panama City, but some settled in the port of Jaque and the rural communities of Puerto Obaldia, Riocito, and Tortuga. Indigenous groups and Afro-Colombians generally settled in the border rainforest area of Darien, one of Panama's most impoverished and least developed regions.
Refugees and asylum seekers could leave the country temporarily only with ONPAR's permission.
Right to Earn a Livelihood
Asylum seekers and those with THP status did not have the right to work, but many worked informally. Recognized refugees could apply for one-year, renewable work permits. The application process was complex and lengthy, typically taking 9 to 11 months.
Although the law granted refugees the right to acquire property and open bank accounts, most credit institutions did not recognize refugee identity cards.
Public Relief and Education
Recognized refugees and asylum seekers had the same rights as nationals to public relief. In urban areas, refugees received UNHCR aid through the Panamanian Red Cross. UNHCR and UNICEF agreed to provide clean drinking water to the border community of Vista Allegre, following Panama's recognition of 47 Wounaan indigenous persons as refugees in late 2006. UNHCR and the humanitarian agency of the European Community installed a clean water system in Alto Playona, where other indigenous Colombians sought refuge. Refugees and asylum seekers had the right to public education. Colombian refugee children, as well as local indigenous Kuna children, attended the only secondary school in Puerto Obaldia, set up to benefit the local community.
Refugees in Vista Allegre worked in a UNHCR-established cooperative for woven handicrafts. In Puerto Obaldia, refugees received UNHCR micro-loans to set up small businesses.
Panama's Poverty Reduction Strategy Plans for international donors did not include refugees and asylum seekers.
- USCR Urges Action to Protect Colombian Refugees in Panama (Press Releases)
- USCR Denounces Panama's Forced Return of Colombian Refugees (Press Releases)