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Colombian refugee hut in Darién province of Panama. (photo by Lucy Haley for JRS/USA)
by Shaina Aber
Associate Advocacy Director for Jesuit Refugee Service/USA 

(Panama City, Panama) November 2, 2010 – I am in Panama right now with a delegation of Refugee Council USA members and a representative  from the Canadian Council for Refugees. I'm about to get onto a plane to visit the Darien jungle where Jesuit Refugee Service serves a group of Colombian refugees living in the most abject of conditions. 

This jungle region of Panama is impassable by car, the only way to get from one village to another is by boat. Children have no access to secondary school education, health care is minimal and many of the children suffer from parasitic diseases. Eight hundred sixty-three of the Colombian refugees living in this jungle region are under a special state of confinement imposed on them by the Panamanian government called Temporary Humanitarian Protection. They are not allowed to leave their village, to work, to access even the most basic of services. These refugees have been living in this state of legal limbo, confinement, and social exclusion for 10 to 13 years.  

The Bishop's Vicariate reported that some of the refugees living with this status have died for lack of medical care (they must receive permission from the Panamanian government to leave the jungle even for emergency medical needs). If a PTH holder attempts to leave their village in the Darien without special dispensation from the Panamanian authorities, Cenefront, the militarized Panamanian police will arrest them and place them in detention or return them to the village. The Panamanian government has promised to regularize their status on multiple occasions, recognizing that they have no ability to go back to Colombia because their lands have been seized by paramilitaries and guerrillas, but the Panamanian government has yet to follow through on this promise.

Yesterday we met with UNHCR, JRS-Panama, the Vicariate of Darien, the Pastoral Social, Caritas, CEALP (a lawyers collective), Norwegian Refugee Council, and the Human Rights Ombudsman's representative for Migrants and Refugees, all in Panama City. The general tone of all the meetings left us very concerned about the situation of Colombian refugees in Panama. In a year when 400 refugees apply for a asylum in Panama, only eight are given recognition. Only 1,000 refugees have ever been recognized by the Panamanian government and a little more than 500 are currently applying. UNHCR estimates that there are 15,000 Colombian refugees living in Panama who have not approached the authorities because they rightly fear they will not receive positive results. UNHCR's budget for Panama is so atrophied that they cannot even meet the needs of the small population of asylum applicants, PTH-holders, and recognized refugees. The 15,000 (or more by NGO estimates) who live in invisibility will remain there for now – with no place to call home, having fled war and persecution and ended up in a country that has shown no interest thus far in offering them a safe-haven.

All of this simply emphasized why JRS needs to be down here. We need to raise the profile of this population of refugees and encourage the U.S. and Canada to aid Panama in addressing the truly desperate situation facing Colombian refugees and asylum applicants in Panama. I won't have internet access in the jungle (or indeed access to any technology). You'll hear from me when I emerge! Read Part Two here.

Shaina Aber is Associate Advocacy Director for Jesuit Refugee Service/USA.

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