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Report highlights Colombian refugee crisis
March 25, 2011

Report highlights Colombian refugee crisis
"We live like slaves," a refugee woman who looked at least two-decades older than her 58-years told us. (Shaina Aber — JRS/USA) CLICK TO ENLARGE
As few as 15,000 and as many as 100,000 Colombian refugees live underground in Panama City, in the most dangerous barrios of Panama, areas controlled by local gangs that even the Panamanian police refuse to enter. One refugee woman, a mother of three, alone with her children in Panama City, reported that her son had been stabbed four times on his way home from school.

(Washington, D.C.) March 26, 2011 — The Migration Policy Institute and Refugee Council USA (a coalition of NGOs including Jesuit Refugee Service/USA) hosted an event March 23, 2011 in Washington, D.C. hosted an event to launch a report by Refugee Council USA on the situation of Colombian refugees in Ecuador and Panama. Two of the speakers were part of the November 2010 RCUSA trip to the region that examined the complex protection and resettlement needs of Colombian refugees. 

To view a video of the event featuring all the speakers, please visit

Read the new issue of The Refugee Voice about Colombian refugees in Ecuador and Panama here. And you can read the full RCUSA report here.

Shaina Aber, Associate Advocacy Director for Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, was one of authors of the report and one of the speakers at the launch. The text of Shaina's remarks follow:

As Andrea [Lari, Director of Regions for Refugees International and a fellow speaker] shared, the Colombian displaced have increasingly fled over the borders into neighboring countries over the last decade. Those who flee northward from the war-torn — but mineral-rich — Colombian department of Choco, in the Northern portion of Colombia’s Pacific Coast, and those who depart from Buenaventura, Colombia's principal port and also its deadliest city, often end up in Panama.   

While Panama is a signatory to the 1951 Convention, the 1967 Protocol, and regional instruments including the Cartagena Declaration and the Mexico Plan of Action, it has the most exclusionary refugee policies of all of Colombia's neighbors.

The young father on the front of our report is one of some 800 Colombian refugees from the Jurado, in the Choco region of Colombia, who after years of violent abuse, several massacres and targeted persecution of town leaders by paramilitaries and the FARC guerillas, fled their communal lands seeking refuge north of the border. This young man was 11-years-old when he entered Panama with his family and his entire village, fleeing on foot and then in small boats and landing in the town of Jaque, in the Darien Gap region of Panama.  

He remembers little of life before displacement, and the conditions of his Temporary Humanitarian Protection in Panama — a regime established by the Panamanian government in 1998 and renewed in 2004 — have meant that he has not been allowed to venture more than three miles outside of Jaque's boundaries for the last 12 years. He must carry papers with him at all times, and is subject to a strict curfew. When we asked him about his dreams, his aspirations for the future, his face was blank: "To be allowed to go to Panama City," he said after a pause — a simple dream but a bigger dream than many young people in the community dare to hope for.

The cluster of towns where the confined refugees landed in the late 1990s have been called prison villages by international observers, because of the limited access to rights, the constant threats of arrest and refoulement, and the absence of the most basic of services.  Our delegation observed that the town of Jaque now appears to be occupied by as many militarized border Police as residents.  

Less than a handful of humanitarian groups, including the Bishop's Vicariate and Jesuit Refugee Service, have permanent staff presence in the Darien — meaning that when rights violations occur, few aside from the refugees, a group of two nuns, and a couple of JRS staff members are there to document and attempt to remedy the situation. UNHCR, and the Red Cross visit the confined refugees from time to time to give orientations and sporadic assistance, but have no permanent presence.  

"We live like slaves," a refugee woman who looked at least two-decades older than her 58-years told us. The refugees of the Darien complain of harassment and abuse, and arbitrary detention and interrogations carried out by the border police. They are also stalked by the twin hazards of hunger and inadequate healthcare, with health conditions that range from untreated parasitosis, to degenerative kidney disease. Even in exigent circumstances, these refugees require special government dispensation to seek emergency or specialized health services in Panama City. 

While a bill is pending in the Panamanian congress to regularize the status of this population, similar language was introduced in 2005 and 2008, but failed to gain any support. Refugee rights advocates, humanitarian groups, the confined refugees, and even the Panamanian Human Rights Ombudsman’s office think there is little chance that the bill will gain support or success this time around.  

The members of our delegation were dismayed by what I would call the menacing complexity of the refugee recognition process in Panama — a system that seemed to have been designed for the purpose of excluding the vast majority of refugees with bona fide claims. 

The refugee recognition process, when it works in the way prescribed by current Panamanian law and policy interpretation, involves the following byzantine series of steps: First the applicant approaches the government’s refugee office ONPAR, to apply for admission to the refugee recognition process. He or she is then subject to a three-part written, legal and social interview by ONPAR staff.  

At the end of this process, which can take up to eight months to complete, the director of ONPAR makes a unilateral decision on whether the refugee may be admitted to the refugee recognition process. The criteria for the admission decisions are rather opaque — the ONPAR Director could only tell us that he applies a "rationality analysis" and "good judgment" to cases he examines for admission, but justifications for denial of admission range from persecution by non-state actors to adverse credibility findings based on the substance of the claims.  

Nine out of ten people will be denied at this juncture. For them the only avenue of appeal is to the ONPAR director, the very person who just issued the denial.  

Ten percent of applicants are admitted into the recognition process. For them the next step is a comprehensive review of the applicant’s "ONPAR" file by a National Refugee Commission composed of eight government ministries that are supposed to meet four times a year. UNHCR has a voice in the Commission but no vote. 

While the letter of Panamanian law does not require unanimity, in practice, all eight Commissioners must agree to grant status before a refugee to be recognized.  This only occurs in 20% of the cases reviewed by the Commission. In 2010, 400 individuals presented their cases to ONPAR, only 30 were admitted to the process, and 8 were recognized – a 2% recognition rate. 

The few refugees with status —1100 in  all — are considered temporary residents of Panama, and while they have the right to work, and the right to enroll their children in education, xenophobia and discrimination often exclude them from the labor market and safe and dignified housing, and a decree by the Bank Superintendent bars their access to the banking system.   

The vast majority of Colombian refugees in Panama City remain unrecognized, and many have been advised by legal service providers not to approach the government for recognition, because chances of denial and deportation are so nearly absolute. Refugees interviewed in Panama City complained that door after door had been shut in their faces. Colombian identity is too often seen as synonymous with drugs, danger, and violence.  

This perception was given voice during a conversation we had with a Panamanian government official. Not just any official, but one of the few authorities we encountered who was sympathetic to the Colombian refugee experience, and the person who will be in charge of launching an anti-xenophobia campaign this year. He stated, without irony, "It's too bad that all the criminals in Panama are Colombian, because it makes people think all Colombians are criminals. This is hard for the refugees."   

As few as 15,000 and as many as 100,000 Colombian refugees live underground in Panama City, in the most dangerous barrios of Panama, areas controlled by local gangs that even the Panamanian police refuse to enter. One refugee woman, a mother of three, alone with her children in Panama City, reported that her son had been stabbed four times on his way home from school.

Delegation members found that the majority of Panamanian officials demonstrated a near complete lack of understanding of some of the most basic aspects of international refugee law — in particular the principle of non-refoulement. Panamanian officials spoke shamelessly about one troubling case in which 30 young Colombians crossed the border into Panama in October 2010, fleeing the FARC guerillas.  When they arrived asking for asylum, the ONPAR director refused to allow them to access the refugee recognition process, and deported them back to Colombia, saying that if they crossed the border again seeking refuge, then he might take their claims more seriously.   

Likewise during our trip to the Darien, the single Panamanian migration official present in all of the jungle complained to the delegation members that Panamanian border police had threatened to get him fired, a fate that befell his three superiors, if he failed to sign an order of deportation for a small group of refugees who entered the jungle two weeks before. "I don’t think that’s right, do you?" He asked us, "you tell me, what is the law."  

I suppose it should have been little wonder to RCUSA members that in this protection climate the concerns of particularly vulnerable groups, like those of unaccompanied minors and refugee victims of sexual and gender-based violence received virtually no specialized attention or services in either Panama City or in the Darien jungle.  

In the face of the near total failure of the refugee protection regime in Panama, RCUSA members were confronted by the fact that UNHCR's resources were inadequate to meet the severe level of need found in Panama. With a limited budget totaling less than a million dollars annually, too much of UNHCR-Panama's scarce resources are directed toward propping up Panama’s broken refugee recognition system. 

In Panama, UNHCR funds the salary of one Panamanian official in the ONPAR office whose supposed specialty is cases involving sexual and gender-based violence. This official was among only three people — all from ONPAR — who failed to acknowledge the persistent and devastating effects of gender-based violence on refugee women and girls. 

UNHCR-Panama is not engaging in recognition of refugees under its mandate and only 20 refugees have been resettled, mostly through embassy referrals, since 2005.  

To address the needs of Colombian refugees in Panama, and the substantial gaps we noted in our report, UNHCR, the US, Canada, others in the region and in the international donor community will need to leverage a number of strategic tools at their disposal.  

We must acknowledge that from the perspective of a Panamanian official the problem is vast, and the refugee crisis is not something Panama can address on its own. There are more internally displaced people in Colombia than there are people in all of Panama, raising the specter of a near endless flow of refugees into Panama. But at the same time, the lack of political will and good faith implementation of the Convention has had clear and lasting effects real human beings, who have been harmed, neglected, abused and returned to the hands of their persecutors in over a decade of inhumane policies and practice. 

It is therefore absolutely imperative that the international community, especially the United States and other global leaders, elevate their concerns about this population to the highest level of diplomatic engagement, while demonstrating a shared commitment to attend to the on-going and intractable humanitarian crisis. 

[Immediate responses should include deploying a resettlement program for some refugees, while assisting Panama to reconstruct their dysfunctional refugee recognition system. Broad economic support to communities with high concentrations of refugees can promote local integration and overtime reduce levels of xenophobia by offering opportunities for long-time community members as well as new arrivals to thrive.] 

I want to end by sharing the words of one asylum-seeker, a recent arrival, who we met in Jaque. A community leader and jeweler in Colombia before suffering multiple displacements, this asylum seeker presented us with a large stack of documents, quite apparently all he had left in the world. With sadness in his eyes he told us that he never would have imagined passing so many days stranded away from his home and his life and all that is familiar, forced to beg for handouts. 

Clearly distraught, alienated by his inability to be a productive member of his new community, he said of his new life. "In the Bible they talk of cities of refuge," he began, and continued "But here I cannot share myself, my gifts."  

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