Praying with Refugees in Panama
01 July 2013

The migrant detention centre in Panama City held nearly 100 men when we visited in March. Some are undocumented immigrants who are awaiting deportation, but several of the men we meet are recognized refugees or in the process of applying for refugee status. (Christian Fuchs/JRS)
Some people in detention are held for more than one year waiting for Panamanian authorities to make a final decision on their refugee status application.
Panama City, 1 July 2013 — The plight of Colombian refugees and displaced persons is the most persistent humanitarian crisis in the western hemisphere; it may also be one of the most ignored in the world. In just the last two decades, the nearly 50 yearlong armed conflict has resulted in the internal and cross-border displacement of more than five million Colombians.

Many Colombians seek refuge in Panama, most of whom lack any legal status, and must subsist without access to legal employment, health care or education. Colombian refugees living in the capital often report discrimination and xenophobia, stating that they are often assumed to be drug dealers, prostitutes or members of the guerrilla.

Reflections for prayer
Although they are seeking asylum, some refugees are held in detention centres while their requests are deliberated. The migrant detention centre in Panama City held nearly 100 men when we visited in March. Some are undocumented migrants awaiting deportation, but several of the men we meet are recognised refugees or in the process of applying for refugee status.

The confined men sleep on thin mattresses on the floor in six large rooms, only two of which have a window — the only source of fresh air — as they await their fate. The mattresses hug the floorboards around the walls of each room, with others spread out in the middle of the rooms.

One man we speak with tells us he was carjacked and kidnapped by leftist guerrillas in Colombia. After attempting to denounce them numerous times to Colombian authorities, he realised justice would not be served.

He fled from Colombia to Panama on foot through the Darien Gap jungle. He sought asylum from the Panamanian authorities, but was instead branded a narcotrafficker and held for deportation.

Through tears, he tells us he asked the authorities for either a work or transit permit, but instead was locked up where he is becoming hopeless. Some people in detention are held for more than one year waiting for Panamanian authorities to make a final decision on their refugee status application.

This man does not want to be here, and his pain is so great that he is considering signing papers that will lead to his deportation back to Colombia. His life is in danger there, but being locked up with no hope is worse for him. The unknown is stressful, and he is desperate. He says he would rather die than be in detention without hope.

The lawyer for the Jesuit Refugee Service Panama promises to follow-up with Panamanian authorities about his case, and we all encourage him to maintain hope. His voice will be heard.

Christian Fuchs and Mary Small, Jesuit Refugee Service USA


Scripture for reading
2 Corinthians 5-11

As Christ's sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow. If we are afflicted, it is for your encouragement and salvation; if we are encouraged, it is for your encouragement, which enables you to endure the same sufferings that we suffer.

Our hope for you is firm, for we know that as you share in the sufferings, you also share in the encouragement.

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction that came to us in the province of Asia; we were utterly weighed down beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life.

Indeed, we had accepted within ourselves the sentence of death, that we might trust not in ourselves but in God who raises the dead.

He rescued us from such great danger of death, and he will continue to rescue us; in him we have put our hope (that) he will also rescue us again, as you help us with prayer, so that thanks may be given by many on our behalf for the gift granted us through the prayers of many.