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Some Colombian refugees are confined the Darien Gap as a result of being given Temporary Humanitarian Protection, an intermediary status that has now kept people in a legal limbo for nearly a decade. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

(Washington D.C.) July 22, 2013 — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Assistant Director for Policy Mary Small participated in a Congressional Briefing hosted by Congressman Sam Farr on June 28. The briefing focused on the continued vulnerability of Colombian refugees in Ecuador and Panama. 

In November of 2010, a delegation from Refugee Council USA visited Panama and Ecuador to learn more about the complex protection and resettlement needs of Colombian refugees. Since the publication of the delegation's report, Living on the Edge: Colombian Refugees in Panama and Ecuador, little has improved for the region’s refugees and, in Ecuador, conditions have actually worsened. A recently published update, Still Living on the Edge: Colombian Refugees in Panama and Ecuador details the changes that have occurred since November 2010, and revises the report’s recommendations. 

Mary Small's remarks highlighted the findings of this recent update:

It continues to be extremely difficult for refugees in Panama to access recognition. Before entering the actual determination process, refugees in Panama must go through an admissibility screening. While this screening is supposed to only screen out obviously fraudulent cases, only 13% of applicants successfully make it through this step. Furthermore, appeals are heard by the same authority that rejected the case in the first place, thus compromising the integrity of that important safeguard. 

Other problems identified in 2010 also continue today. Refugees only have six months in which to apply; this does not allow sufficient time, especially as most people aren’t familiar with the legal process. Receiving refugee status still does not include the right to work, and refugees must apply for a separate work permit. This process often takes months, needlessly extending the period of time in which refugees are either destitute or forced to work in the informal economy for extremely low wages.

Another point of serious concern is the refugees who are confined the Darien Gap as a result of being given Temporary Humanitarian Protection (THP), an intermediary status that has now kept people in a legal limbo for nearly a decade. In 2011, Panama passed legislation to address some of the biggest challenges faced by these refugee families, including regularizing their legal status. Unfortunately, despite significant international acclaim for the new law, implementation has been exceedingly slow. The original timeline described by the government of Panama provided a two-year window in which the regularization would take place. The two years end in late 2013 and to date, no individual with THP has been granted a status change.

The current situation in Ecuador is, sadly, even more troubling. In hindsight, it appears that 2009 was a high mark for refugee protection in Ecuador, with significant backward movement since.

In May 2012, Ecuador adopted Decree 1182, which signaled a move away from the Cartagena Declaration’s broader definition of refugee. Given the specific context of the Colombian armed conflict in which many displaced people flee generalized violence or are targeted by non-state actors, many refugees are now excluded from protection.

Additionally, under the new law, refugees only have 15 days after entry into Ecuador to file a claim. Like Panama, Ecuador has an initial admissibility process, also only supposed to exclude “manifestly unfounded, abusive, or illegitimate” claims, but also used to exclude legitimate refugees. Those who don’t make it through this initial step are only given three business days to appeal. Given that it takes an average of three business days to obtain one’s file from the Refugee Directorate, the timeline laid out by Decree 1182 makes a successful appeal nearly impossible.

Many refugees in Ecuador encounter hardship before they can even consider submitting a claim as the detention of refugees by Ecuadorian police in the northern border region has increased, despite the fact that the Ecuadorian Constitution offers protections against this practice.

During 2012, an estimated 256,590 people were displaced within Colombia. Eighteen thousand new refugees (approximately 1,500 each month) crossed Ecuador’s northern border seeking safety, within an unknown number also fleeing into Panama and Venezuela. 

Much attention has been focused on the Colombian peace negotiations, and rightly so—a cessation of the armed conflict in Colombia would be welcome news for refugees and displaced people in the region. But the construction of a sustainable peace after decades of armed conflict will take time. In this context, it is absolutely crucial that Ecuador and Panama, as well as the international community, not assume that voluntary repatriation will be possible in the near future, and instead continue to provide protection and promote local integration and third country resettlement as the most appropriate durable solutions.

Related: Quiet Crisis — Colombian refugees in Panama and Ecuador

A letter from Congressman Sam Farr (CA-20) follows.

Still Living on the Edge
The State of Colombian Refugees in Panama and Ecuador
10 a.m. Friday, June 28, 2013
Cannon 122

Dear Colleague:

Colombia is in a state of incredible transition. After decades of internal armed conflict that has cost thousands of lives and left 10% of the population displaced, peace negotiations are under way in Havana between Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerillas. Yet, the issue of displacement and Colombian refugees has struggled to get attention on the peace negotiation agenda. In particular, the plight of some 300,000 Colombian refugees in neighboring Ecuador and Panama has gone largely unaddressed, even as the problem grows with an estimated 1,500 Colombians fleeing to Ecuador every month.

These Colombian refugees often live without critical protections and are especially vulnerable to stigmatization, exploitation, and sexual and gender-based violence. Panama has long fallen short of meeting regional standards for refugee protection and while Ecuador was once a leader on refugee rights, recent Ecuadoran legislation has created a far more restrictive environment for refugees. 

Please join us at 10 a.m., Friday, June 28th for an informative discussion on this issue with HIAS, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), and Jesuit Refugee Service/USA. Panelists will share highlights of two new reports:  USCRI and Asylum Access’s Refugee Status Determination in Latin America: Regional Challenges and Opportunities and Refugee Council USA’s Still Living on the Edge: Colombian Refugees in Panama and Ecuador. 


Enrique Burbinski
Latin America Regional Director

Sabrina Lustgarten
Ecuador Executive Director

Ana White
Director of Government and Community Relations
U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants

Mary Small
Assistant Director for Policy
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA


Sam Farr
Member of Congress 

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Download a PDF of Still Living on the Edge:Colombian Refugees in Panama and Ecuador