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The Panamanian city of Colón lies on the Caribbean coast, on the other end of the Panama Canal from the capital of Panama City. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

(Colón, Panama) May 7, 2013 — Jesuit Refugee Service has made it a priority to work with "forgotten" refugees whose plight is overlooked by others. In this city of 220,000 people, many refugees from Colombia live in the shadows.

Urban refugees often live a hand to mouth existence, facing a myriad of obstacles ranging from xenophobia to detention. Isolation, restrictive and inadequate government policies and resource constraints all take on increased significance in urban settings.

Despite neglect and intolerance, the number of urban refugees is rising. Today more than half of the world’s 43 million refugees live outside of camps.

Marco and his wife Ofelia fled to Panama from their hometown on Colombia's northern coast two and a half years ago after a neighbor there was killed. As potential witnesses, they feared for their lives. Believing the police may have been involved in the killing, and with no protection offered by the authorities, Marco and Ofelia left their old lives behind.

There is no government assistance for refugees in Panama, and refugees here face a two-step ordeal on the road to self-sufficiency. First, they must apply for refugee status. This step alone can take months or longer as Panama’s asylum process is extremely cumbersome. A report by Refugee Council USA notes that on average, it takes between one to three years for any given case to work its way through the system.

After initially being denied refugee status in Panama, Marco and Ofelia enlisted the services of a non-governmental organization offering legal aid, and re-applied. They were approved for refugee status 18 months ago.

However, even after achieving legal asylum, refugees must apply for a work permit. There is no guarantee it will be granted, and even if it is, the ID clearly notes the person is a refugee. This distinction often leads to discrimination and makes it difficult for refugees to find work. The stigma against refugees from Colombia is that the men must be narco-traffickers and the women must be prostitutes. The discrimination can be overwhelming and demoralizing, and the process is exhausting.

One method by which Jesuit Refugee Service helps urban refugees like Marco and Ofelia in Panama is with income generation programs. By providing small cash loans and grants, JRS helps refugees start their own simple businesses. Some use the cash assistance to acquire the raw materials to make clothes or crafts to sell; others purchase ingredients and rent food carts to sell meals and snacks on the street. A grant from the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugee and Migration helps enable JRS to provide this service.

In Colón, Marco and Ofelia have started a bakery service in their home. Rising well before the sun, the husband and wife cook fresh pastries and bring them to the market before it opens at 5:30 a.m. each day. After spending the morning selling, they buy the flour, sugar and meat necessary to prepare the next day’s goods. Their afternoons are filled with preparation: making dough and preparing the meats so they can begin to cook again upon awakening the next day.

Although the labor is intensive and the reward small, Marco and Ofelia have a long term plan to improve their situation. Currently, their oven takes up a quarter of one of the rooms in their three-room home, with just a foot or two of clearance between the ceiling and oven. With help from JRS, they hope to expand their business by purchasing a larger stove and working from an actual business site, and not their home.

Through the income generating programs and by advocating for improved government response to the needs of urban refugees in Panama, JRS hopes that Marco and Ofelia and the thousands more like them will be able to move toward self-sufficiency and full integration into their new community.

By Christian Fuchs
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA

Learn more:

Seeking asylum in Panama, refugee finds hopeless detention
Panama: refugees look to a more hospitable future
Spotlight on Colombian refugees in legal limbo in Panama

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