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On Assignment in Panama, Part Two

Colombian refugee hut in Darién province of Panama. (photo by Lucy Haley for JRS/USA)
Friday, November 05, 2010

by Shaina Aber

(Panama City, Panama) November 5, 2010 – I just returned from the town of Jaque in the Darien Jungle in Panama with a group of five delegates from RCUSA and Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR). When we arrived in Jaque we were greeted by the two Jesuit Refugee Service staff members who serve the refugees confined to the Darien. 

It has been four years since I last visited the refugees of Jaque, and I must say conditions have not improved – in fact they have gotten worse. The refugee community is comprised mainly of refugees from the Choco region of Colombia, most of whom crossed over into Panama ten years ago or more, fleeing targeted attacks on their villages by the guerrillas and the paramilitaries. Trapped between these vicious groups, many of the refugees lost loved ones to massacres and were thus driven from their mineral rich land.

I was particularly struck by interviews we conducted with two women, one who is 58 years old, the other who is 31. Both came from the same Afro-Colombian community in Colombia and have suffered greatly during their years of confinement in Panama. The older woman is the grandmother of 30 children in the town and looks far older than her 58 years. JRS has assisted her in purchasing materials to improve her home, which has been inundated by constant floods because of a faulty roof and floor during the rainy season. 

She reported to me that she has no hope for the future, that her people live "like slaves" in Panama, brutalized and preyed upon by the Panamanian police who keep them confined, with no access to heath care, basic food  assistance, and jobs. Her gaunt frame echoed her tale of constant hunger and desperation. She has lived in confinement for 11 years and simply wants the chance to leave the jungle, to go Panama city and find a future for her family. She doesn't believe the government's promises that they will eventually grant status to the confined population, because these are promises she has heard before and to no avail. Despite her circumstances she said she prefers life in confinement in Panama to life in Colombia.  "There I lived with the constant nightmare of death. Here I can sleep through the night though I often go hungry," she reported.

The younger woman's story is just as sad. She crossed into Panama when she was 21 years old, already pregnant with her fourth child.  This boy, the only of her children born in Panama, thus the only Panamanian citizen in the family, has a serious kidney condition which requires her to hook him to a dialysis machine every night. She must also send him to Panama City every month for overnight treatment at the hospital. He was not always sick, his condition began to manifest when he was two-years-old. She has received special permission to travel with him to the city on these hospital visits, but can seldom afford the cost of both a plane ticket for her and her sick son, and therefore she is forced to send her little nine-year-old alone to the city for the treatment.  

She is desperate for a way out of this situation, for the money for a surgery, and has even considered leaving her husband and returning to Colombia. She told us she needs to be in a city, that she fears that something will go wrong while she is far away from any medical professional who can help her son. She considers going to Medellin, Colombia if she can't get the refugee status required so that she can live in Panama City.  She said, "I fear return, after all we lost, of course I fear return, and my husband will not go back, but these are the choices we are forced to make."

One of two nuns who also serve the people of the Darien through the Vicariate's office in Jaque expressed her sadness at the deteriorating situation and the way that young people now appear to lack any aspirations for the future after years of confinement and broken promises. Our delegation noted this hopelessness and in interviews with various young people. The young adult refugees, who fled over the border in their preteens and as small children seem to lack any dreams. They are a neglected people who fled violent war and landed in a situation of near absolute deprivation. It is well  past time for the Panamanian government to regularize this small population of refugees and live up to their obligations under the refugee convention. 

On a lighter note, the younger children embrace the joy and curiosity of children everywhere. At one point, while walking through the town a group of small children approached us calling out for the attention of "Santa Claus," the name they assigned to the white-haired, white-bearded Canadian member of our delegation. Their laughter and imagination was a testament to the continued resilience of the human spirit even in the most difficult of situations.

That's all for now. We're headed to Ecuador tonight.

Shaina Aber is Associate Advocacy Director for Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and is on a fact-finding visit to Panama and Ecuador with a delegation of Refugee Council USA members and a representative from the Canadian Council for Refugees.

Click here to learn more about Colombian refugees in legal limbo in Panama.