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Praying with Refugees in Panama
Monday, July 01, 2013

The Migrant Detention Center in Panama City held nearly 100 men when we visited in March. Some are undocumented immigrants who are awaiting deportation, but several of the men we meet are recognized refugees or in the process of applying for refugee status. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

(Panama City) July 1, 2013 — The plight of Colombian refugees and displaced persons is the most persistent humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere; it may also be one of the most ignored in the world. In just the last two decades, the nearly 50-year-long armed conflict has resulted in the internal and cross-border displacement of more than five million Colombians. 

Many Colombians seek refuge in Panama. Most Colombian refugees who live here lack any legal status, and must subsist without access to legal employment, health care or education. Many Colombians living in the capital report discrimination and xenophobia, stating that they are often assumed to be drug dealers, prostitutes or members of the guerilla.

Reflections for Prayer

Although they are seeking asylum, some refugees are placed into detention while their requests are deliberated. The Migrant Detention Center in Panama City held nearly 100 men when we visited in March. Some are undocumented immigrants who are awaiting deportation, but several of the men we meet are recognized refugees or in the process of applying for refugee status. 

The confined men sleep on thin mattresses on the floor in six large rooms, only two of which have a window — the only source of fresh air — and await their fate. The mattresses hug the floorboards around the walls of each room, with an extra irregular row (or two, depending on the room size) laid out down the floor in the middle of the rooms.

One man we speak with tells us of how he had been carjacked and kidnapped by leftist guerillas in Colombia. After attempting to denounce them numerous times to Colombian authorities, he realized justice would not be served. 

He fled from Colombia to Panama on foot through the Darien Gap jungle. He approached the authorities in Panama to ask for refuge, but instead he was branded a narco-trafficker and held for deportation.

Through tears, he tells us he asked the authorities for either the ability to work or to be allowed to transit to the next country, but instead he is locked up and becoming hopeless. There are people in detention who have been held for more than one year waiting for Panamanian authorities to make a final decision on their refugee status application.

This man does not want to be here, and his pain is so great he is considering signing papers that will lead to his deportation back to Columbia. His life is in danger in Colombia, but being locked up with no hope is worse for him. The unknown is stressful, and he is desperate. He says he would rather die than be in detention without hope. 

The lawyer for Jesuit Refugee Service Panama promises to follow-up with Panamanian authorities about his case, and we all encourage him to maintain hope. His voice will be heard.

By Christian Fuchs and Mary Small
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA


Suggested Reading for Prayer
2 Corinthians 5-11

As Christ's sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow. If we are afflicted, it is for your encouragement and salvation; if we are encouraged, it is for your encouragement, which enables you to endure the same sufferings that we suffer.

Our hope for you is firm, for we know that as you share in the sufferings, you also share in the encouragement.

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction that came to us in the province of Asia; we were utterly weighed down beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life. 

Indeed, we had accepted within ourselves the sentence of death, that we might trust not in ourselves but in God who raises the dead.

He rescued us from such great danger of death, and he will continue to rescue us; in him we have put our hope (that) he will also rescue us again, as you help us with prayer, so that thanks may be given by many on our behalf for the gift granted us through the prayers of many.