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Refugees: Between Hope and Fear
June 25, 2009

Panama's daily newspaper Prensa recently published an article entitled “Refugees: Between Hope and Fear,” detailing the complex struggles of Colombians living as refugees in Panama. Among the challenges reported are widespread public prejudices against refugees, burdensome requirements in the acquisition of refugee status, restrictions on movement for unrecognized Colombian refugees living in border regions, and inadequate legal protections and support for those with official refugee status.

The article spotlights one Colombian refugee, Moravia, whose experience in Panama is not uncommon. In addition to being required to produce extensive paperwork to support his claim to refugee status, Moravia has also contended with public perception of Colombian refugees as commercial sex workers. Even after obtaining a refugee identity card, Moravia continues to find new obstacles to integration: “Sometimes, having an identification card doesn’t help. When you show it to someone, it’s as if you had committed a crime.” In addition, the refugee identity card is not recognized by banks or law enforcement, forcing such refugees to carry their passports with them at all times.

Also interviewed for the article was Jose Mendoza, Director of Jesuit Refugee Service-Panama, who believes that the principal problem for asylum-seekers in Panama is lack of sufficient paperwork to establish their claims.

“When a person leaves his country because he finds himself in danger, he comes without a passport, without an I.D., without a birth certificate,” explains Mendoza. “These are people who are leaving against their will and for a variety of reasons, all of them horrendous.” Mendoza also points out the incoherence of requests by Panamanian authorities that refugees produce documentation, stating, “[These individuals] are simply grabbing their family and fleeing.”

According to the National Office for the Care of Refugees (ONPAR), 968 individuals are currently living in Panama as refugees. ONPAR Director Plutarco Pedreschi states that while most of these are individuals who have fled armed conflict in Nicaragua and El Salvador, recent applications for refugee status have cropped up from countries such as Cameroon, Colombia, Chad, Liberia and Haiti.

The article can be read in Prensa via the link above. Below is an English translation.


Refugees: Between Hope and Fear
by Ana Teresa Benjamin (Prensa)

Moravia would prefer to be in his own country. He is alive and grateful, but admits: “It is difficult…it is difficult to obtain refugee status because they scrutinize your [documentary] proof, then analyze your situation. Colombians are also burdened with the stigma of being commercial sex workers. 

Moravia left Colombia three years ago after receiving threats from guerrillas, and his “good fortune” was that he remembered to bring his papers with him. Because of this, he was able to obtain a refugee identification card somewhat quickly.

“But there are many compatriots who have also fled…They come without anything, which makes it much more difficult.”

According to the National Office for the Care of Refugees (ONPAR) within the Ministry of Government and Justice, 968 people are living in Panama as refugees. They have sought refuge there because they have been persecuted for reasons of politics, race or gender.

According to Plutarco Pedreschi, director of ONPAR, the majority of these individuals are Salvadorans and Nicaraguans who have arrived to the country fleeing from wars in their home countries during the seventies and eighties.

But in recent years, he adds, the number of applications from persons hailing from countries such as Cameroon, Colombia, Chad, Liberia and Nigeria has increased. In addition, adds the official, some Haitians have also sought refuge.

To Jose Mendoza of Jesuit Refugee Services (SJR), the principal problem that those fleeing face is lack of papers.

“When a person leaves his country because he finds himself in danger, he comes without a passport, without an I.D., without a birth certificate,” explains Mendoza. “These are people who are leaving against their will, for many reasons, all of them horrendous.”

This is why it is so incoherent of the authorities to ask for papers from refugees, “because they are simply grabbing their family and running.”

Moravia also assures that obtaining identity card will not in itself solve all of their problems. “Sometimes, having an identification card doesn’t help. When you show it to someone, it’s as if you had committed a crime.”

Unbeknownst to many, the refugee identity card is not recognized by banks nor by the police themselves. 

“We must always walk around with our passports,” states Moravia. On the other hand, displaced Colombians in the region of Piña and Jaqué in the province of Darién, who have been there for nine years, still haven’t regularized their status.

“The state granted them temporary protected status,” says Mendoza, a condition that does not offer complete legal protections (they can be deported to Colombia) and restricts their movement.

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) has declared that this temporary status, which at first was established for two months, has been applied “in a more flexible way” in this case.

Regarding the 11 Somalis who were rescued at sea at the end of last May, the deputy director of the National Migration Services, Tayra Barsallo, explained that they are still verifying the identities and stories of each of them.

“This is a delicate case that requires an exhaustive investigation,” stated the official.

Barsallo said that only after corroborating their histories and background “will we be

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Mr Christian Fuchs
communications@jrsusa.org
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