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4. Pressured to repatriate

Colombian refugee in Panama City filling out paperwork at JRS Panama office. (photo by K. Sanchez - JRS)
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"They went to the houses of people, took photos of them – many people became frightened and signed return documents." – PTH, regarding the voluntary repatriations carried out in Jaqué.

The Panamanian government, in conjunction with Colombian authorities, began repatriating refugees in the Darién border region in 1996, resulting in an outcry from the international community.1 Despite criticism, repatriations continued, and Jaqué, as a major destination for refugees, saw various return efforts. In 2001, 48 people in Jaqué were returned to Bahía Solano, Colombia,2 and in December of 2003, as a result of an agreement reached between the Panamanian and Colombian governments, 85 Colombians were returned to Juradó.3

Although both of these repatriation efforts were overseen by the UNHCR, doubts exist in the community regarding how voluntary the returns truly were. Interviews with residents of Jaqué suggest that the Panamanian authorities pursued a policy of intimidation in order to pressure displaced Colombians to sign return documents. As one young man describes: “They came to our house and took pictures of us as though we were criminals."  One woman informed us that when the authorities were visiting houses "I fled to the beach because I didn't want to go back, I took my children and I hid on the beach so they wouldn’t find me, I hid until nightfall when they had left already."

Several people also affirmed that Panamanian authorities offered money to those individuals who would agree to return. As one woman notes "They gave money to people and they left, as though it were a business deal.” According to residents in Jaqué, among those who returned to Juradó in 2003, few were able to safely restart their lives in the town: "Some of the people joined the guerrillas in order to survive, others joined the paras [paramilitary forces], and some of them were killed. Others fled to others towns, some returned to Panama."

Since 2004, there have not been any more large-scale voluntary repatriations at the border, although according to the Darién vicariate, ONPAR continues to facilitate the "voluntary" return of smaller groups of refugees in the Darién region.4 In 2005, the Panamanian government began the process of providing identification cards to remaining individuals with Temporary Humanitarian Protection. It was hoped at the time that these cards represented a step towards Panama’s acceptance of the displaced population as permanent refugees. However, the identification cards do not allow beneficiaries to move within the country, and many Panamanian authorities are not familiar with them. 

According to Jaqué residents, even the police in Jaqué sometimes tell them that their cards are not valid. As T, an elderly man who lives with several of his children and grandchildren in Jaqué, notes: "We’re very bad off here without documents. They gave us an identification card but some of the police say it’s worth nothing. Here in Panama, according to the Constitution, foreigners have a right to documents after living here for five years and we have already been here for nine years. They say that the UN has given money to the Panamanian government for cards [that will allow us to travel] but we have never heard anything about that."

These returns, along with the precarious legal status afforded refugees under Temporary Humanitarian Protection, has left the displaced population in a permanent state of doubt and uncertainty. As F stated "At times, I think that at any moment they could take us away from here."

"When we arrived here, my experience was good in some ways, because the community received us well, they helped us a lot." – refugee, Jaqué.

Because of the preexisting ties existing between communities in Chocó and Darién, for many people the social aspect of building a new life in Darién was not difficult. Before the UNHCR began providing humanitarian assistance, many people were able to survive through help from community members. As one woman informed us, when she first arrived in Jaqué "Our friends gave us what we needed because everyone here knew me – from one person, I got a pound of rice, from another some plátanos, and that way I was able to eat." With respect to the preexisting ties between the Juradó and Jaqué, another woman commented that “That’s why they didn’t put us in tents, in refugee camps – because the people here already knew us.”

However, not everyone experienced a positive reception from their new Panamanian neighbors. Media information characterizing all Colombians as guerillas and narco-traffickers has colored many Panamanians' perception of Colombians, a particularly sad fact in a community where the majority of people are of Colombian descent. As one woman states "At first they didn’t want us in their town. They though that we were guerrillas, or because we were fleeing from the guerrillas they though that the guerrillas would follow us and kill them as well."

Many feel that there is a certain amount of discrimination in the community against the displaced population: "If a Panamanian does something bad they say it was a displaced person [who did it] – as a Colombian I feel bad because if a displaced person does something bad, they don’t say that person X did it, they say all displaced people." One man with temporary protected status even found himself reported to Migration by a neighbor with whom he had a disagreement.  As there was no basis for the claim, Migration dismissed the case, but this kind of harassment further complicates the already difficult live

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