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Seed money is loaned to refugees in the income generating activity program to enable them to start their own small businesses, such as this food stand in Panama City, Panama. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

(Washington, D.C.) January 20, 2014 — A grant from the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration helped Jesuit Refugee Service implement a program in Panama last year to help refugees by offering counseling, emergency humanitarian assistance, education and legal aid.

The program focused on vulnerable refugees in Panamá City, Colón Province and the small community of Puerto Piña in the Darién Province near the Colombian border.

After evaluating the urgent needs of families, emergency humanitarian assistance in the form of food baskets or vouchers was provided to refugees in Panama City and Colon. JRS provided the food aid because it allowed beneficiaries to focus their attention on more pressing issues such as their legal status in Panama and integration into their local communities. Moreover, the food assistance decreased the vulnerability of families with very limited financial resources.

Emergency medical assistance was also provided in the form of specialized medical attention, laboratory tests, and medical exams. JRS coordinated these services with the Panamanian Health Ministry, and the medical care was provided at public institutions in Panama’s public health system. In some cases, JRS paid for private consultations.   

JRS legal assistance consisted of accompaniment of refugees through application procedures for refugee status, work permits, and, in the case of refugees from Colombia, access to Colombian documentation such as identity cards and passports. These documents are essential for people to obtain Panamanian residency or refugee status; in their haste to reach safety, refugees who flee in fear of their lives often leave their home countries with only the clothes on their back. 

The JRS team of social workers, lawyers, and education specialists conducted home visits and convened sessions with small groups of migrants and refugees. This method was effective for providing legal instruction to people who could not normally access legal advice because of its high cost and their own difficulties traveling in Panama.

Several group activities were implemented in Panama City, Colón, and Darién that focused on strategies for integration into local communities and peaceful coexistence between local communities and people in need of international protection. 

Self-help groups in Darien and Colón offered women a safe space to exchange views and experiences on issues that affected them. JRS observed that the women were strengthened by the group sessions.

JRS also worked directly with income generation grant recipients to help them start their small businesses. Recipients received training and site visits designed to assist them in developing their business ideas, tools for managing their businesses, and opportunities to obtain additional training from other organizations.

The refugee population in the border communities lives in poverty and lacks basic needs such as medical care and a stable food supply. The number of people who can apply for status as refugees or asylum seekers is limited, and the Panamanian government considers them economic migrants rather than refugees from the on-going conflict in Colombia; consequently they have to seek other legal alternatives to obtain status in Panama. Unfortunately, many displaced people cannot afford the high costs of the visas. 

In urban areas, refugees are absorbed into the informal labor market and struggle for economic survival. Urban refugees are consistently denied jobs in the formal labor market, even those with work authorization. Prejudices against Colombians and refugees in general are prevalent and make it difficult for them to obtain employment. Please read, Refugees in Panama face long road to stability for more information about JRS and refugees in Panama.

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