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2. Panama: trapped at the border
18 August 2010

Colombian refugee applicants in Jaque, Panama. (photo by Shaina Aber/JRS)
Fifty years ago, borders were more fluid. People moved between the Darién province of Panama and the Chocó department of Colombia freely – especially during the Patron Saint's celebrations in these communities. Mainly populated by people of African and indigenous descent, the two regions share strong cultural ties. Families span both sides of the border. However, all that changed when the armed conflict in Colombia began to ravage Chocó in the late 1990s. The December 1999 guerrilla takeover of Juradó, an isolated, jungle–enclosed community just minutes from the Panama–Colombia border, resulted in an influx of hundreds of people from Juradó to the coastal town of Jaqué, Panama. Similar events in other parts of Chocó swelled the refugee population in Darién.

Ten years later, the former residents of Chocó remain in legal limbo. A majority were denied refugee status by the Panamanian government; instead, they were given "Temporary Humanitarian Protection." However, this provisional status has proven to be anything but temporary. Executive Decree No. 28 of 1998, reformed Panama's refugee laws, creating the National Office for Attention to Refugees ("ONPAR") and the category of "Temporary Humanitarian Protection" (PTH). The law specifies that beneficiaries of PTH status will not enjoy the legal and social benefits afforded to refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention. It also states that Panamanian authorities will "arrange reception sites, due to the necessity of the security and well being of those who are protected under the Status…" and will also “indicate the limits of mobility for people who enter the country en masse" (Article 84).

According to the Executive Decree, PTH status was intended to last two months, while arrangements were made for the beneficiaries to be repatriated or resettled in a third country, although the law provides that the status may be extended depending on the magnitude of the situation. As of 2009, there are 829 people living under Temporary Humanitarian Protection (PTH) in the Darién region, 166 in Jaqué alone. The majority have been in Panama for almost ten years, confined to the tiny seaside towns they arrived in and forbidden from relocating or even travelling to other parts of the country in most cases. They are also ineligible to apply for a work permit, meaning that they are excluded from all formal employment.

This population continues to receive financial support from the United Nations, through the Darién vicariate. However, according to those who work for the vicariate, the UN is gradually reducing funding on the basis that after ten years in Panama, the refugees should be self-sufficient. Unfortunately, the restrictive policies of the Panamanian government towards those Colombians afforded Temporary Humanitarian Protection has made economic self-sufficiency virtually impossible for this population.

"A person doesn't have a right to travel – it's as though you are in prison." - Undocumented refugee, Puerto Piña.

The mobility of the Colombian refugee population in Jaqué is monitored by the National Migration Service and ONPAR, both of which have offices in the town, as well as the national police, who have their regional headquarters in that town. In general, individuals with temporary protected status may only leave the community for medical visits or to attend school. Permits have been granted for individuals to visit family members in other parts of the country for short periods of time, but these are rare and granted at the discretion of ONPAR. People with temporary humanitarian protection may not even visit other towns in the Darién region without permission, which, again, is discretionary.

Naturally, people are frustrated with this situation. As one woman stated "We've been here ten years – they ought to give us a document so that we can travel. People shouldn't have to beg the authorities every time they want to leave."

Of course, over the years some people have managed to "escape" the receiving community for other parts of the country, generally Panama City. Many individuals have family members or know people who have left the community without permission to work, but these individuals live a risky existence. They can only work informally. Moreover, police in Panamá city are constantly on the lookout for foreigners of all types, but especially Colombians, stopping them on the street to request their identification. As one woman notes "When people go to Panama City without getting permission, the police tell them that their identification card is worth nothing; they put them in jail and then the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] comes to reclaim them and send them back to Jaqué."

Mobility within the community is also limited. In the first few years after the influx, the refugees were essentially confined to their houses. They were not allowed to go into the forest to plant crops, or to the rivers or the ocean to fish, a situation that essentially excluded them from working at all. According to Avid Alvarado, a Jaqué resident and former employee of the Darién vicariate who is currently working with Jesuit Refugee Service as an outreach coordinator, leaving the community to work was forbidden because the police believed that the displaced population went to the forest to meet with guerrillas who were camped there.

People who left to go to the rivers or the forest to work during this time faced consequences at the hands of the police. As one woman noted "We plant rice, corn – at first it was hard, my husband and I had to go secretly to forest to plant corn. We went secretly, without permission. They took my brother to the police station for that, and after that he had to present himself at the police station three times a day. We Colombians like to work a lot – I can't understand how they can arrest a person for working, for going to harvest plantains so we don't have to buy them…"

Another woman noted that "When [my husband] went into the forest to fish, the police caught him and took him to the police station. He had to pay a fine, about $20 or $30 to the corregidor [local government authority] and if you don't pay it, they put you in jail." Aside from fines and increased vigilance, displaced persons who ignored the prohibitions to plant crops or to fish outside of the community faced deportation. According to Avid Alvarado, many of those who were "voluntarily" returned to Colombia had been accused of leaving the community to meet with subversives.

The unwillingness on the part of the Panamanian government to allow these refugees to work to support themselves forced many people to return out of sheer economic necessity. As one young woman notes "Many people got tired of being here and they left, because if you don't have permission to work or to go anywhere you don't have any way to support yourself economically." Unfortunately, some of those who chose to return were subsequently killed as a result of the instability that still exists in Juradó.

For the first few years, the refugee population was not allowed to leave their houses after 8p.m. at night. As one woman notes "They would arrest you for walking in the street. When they caught you out at night, they would fine you or put you to work in the cemetery. You would spend the night in jail – and if it was Friday night you'd have to stay there until Monday." She added that police harassment, particularly of young men and women, was another factor in many peoples' decision to return. "The majority of the young people at that time left because they couldn't stand the pressure. They couldn't leave, they couldn't be ou

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