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Seeking asylum, refugee finds hopeless detention

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. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Tuesday, March 19, 2013

(Panama City) March 19, 2013 — Last Thursday afternoon we visited the Migrant Detention Center here in Panama’s capital. On our way, we passed a sign in a front yard near the center that said “No to the Migrant Jail.” With a less forthright frame, the government of Panama often refers to the Detention Center as an albergue— a shelter.

Regardless of what one calls it, the reality is that the facility currently holds 91 men under lock and key. Some are undocumented immigrants who are awaiting deportation, but several of the men we met 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 young man we spoke with told a deeply moving, and deeply disturbing, story. After having his life threatened multiple times in Colombia for refusing to be extorted, and after denouncing his situation to all the relevant authorities to no avail, he realized that he and his family would never be safe in Colombia. In preparation, he applied for his Colombian passport to allow him to travel, but was told that he would have to wait three months to receive his passport. It was clear to him that the grave threat under which he and his family were living made this timeline unworkable, so he begged the authorities to rush his request, but was denied. He decided to flee to Panama and there petition the Panamanian government for protection. 

After a difficult crossing through the Darien gap jungle, he sought out Panamanian authorities and voluntarily turned himself in. He recounted his entire story to them, including the threats to his life. Despite this, the authorities referred him to the National Institute of Migration — not to ONPAR, which is the Panamanian institution that handles refugees. The migration authorities took him to the Detention Center.

While many of the other detained men have family members or friends in Panama who can visit them and occasionally bring them basic necessities that are not provided in detention, like soap and toothpaste, he knows no one. For him, the isolation—without contact with his family, without knowing how they are—is overwhelming.  

His case is one of the most straightforward: armed groups individually and specifically targeted him; he fled to the nearest safe country; he turned himself in voluntarily; and he is seeking asylum. Yet, he suffers poor conditions in a detention center day after day, rather than receiving the international protection to which he has a right.    

UNHCR, the United Nations Agency for Refugees, has been crystal clear: it is almost never appropriate to detain asylum seekers and it is certainly never appropriate to deport people who are in the process of seeking asylum, as the Panamanian government has threatened to do.  

At the end of our interview, the lawyer for Jesuit Refugee Service Panama promised to follow-up with ONPAR about his case immediately. We all encouraged him to maintain hope, repeating that his case should move relatively quickly through the system. 

But as so many refugees unfortunately know, should and will are far from the same thing.

Learn more about our work with Colombian refugees and internally displaced people by clicking here.

by Mary Small
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Assistant Director for Policy

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