Little by little Panama is becoming a transit and destination country for thousands of migrants. Influxes of economic migrants, refugees, trafficking victims attempt to cross Panama towards the US or come from Central American countries in search of international protection or better living standards in Panama.
Most refugees who came to Panama are from Colombia. Many brought their children with them to Panama, fleeing armed conflict or generalised violence in their home countries. They settled in Darién province, on the border with Colombia, in Colón, or in Panama City, to start again from scratch because they were forced to leave everything they owned behind to flee for their lives. It is the price of war they have had to pay.
The situation is particularly difficult for Colombian children, sons and daughters of refugees. From one day to another, they find themselves far from their homes, neighbourhoods and countries; in another city, school, and country.
Now they are foreigners, refugees, like their parents. Many of them have become accustomed to missing a day of school because their parents cannot afford to give them anything to eat or to pay their bus fare to school as they have no documents or are unable to find employment. In fact the lack of employment forms the bedrock of the failure of Panama to offer protection to refugee families.
Lack of effective protection. Panama, signatory to the 1951 UN refugee convention, is a classic example of unfavourable treatment of more than 1,500 refugees accessing the labour market.
After being recognised as refugees in Panama, a process which takes two years on average, they have to apply to the labour ministry for a work permit. This process can take another four months due to delays associated with the transfer of the documentation by the national office for the protection of refugees, something which does not occur with other migrants.
The situation gets more complicated for refugees in Panama who wish to start small businesses or exercise a profession. For example, street vendors require special permits (on top of the work permits), and certain professions are restricted to citizens or those who have lived in Panama for a certain period of time.
Limiting access of refugees to the labour market, and to certain economic activities, is in contravention of the 1951 UN refugee convention. Panama is denying the same protection it seeks to offer in recognising forced migrants as refugees.
After nearly two and a half years of waiting, refugee status offers little protection to its beneficiaries. Deprivation of unemployment, instability of the informal labour market and stigmatisation associated with their migration status exemplify the urgent need to redefine in practice the concept of protection and the legal-political system for refugees
A different type of society. Yet, the Colombian children who come to our offices show, like their parents, a huge desire to get ahead, forget the past, look to the future. All they want is to play, draw, sing, dance, go to school every day, tell stories, and lead a normal life like other girls and boys. Their faces express joy and zest for life, even though we know there is a big smokescreen clouding their futures in Panama and Colombia.
Accompanying Colombian and other refugee children and defending their rights in Panama, the Jesuit Refugee Service makes a commitment to life and to the possibility of building a society where all, independently of their migratory status or nationality, are able to gain access to their basic rights free from discrimination. In short, a commitment to building a hospitable society!
Wooldy Edson Louidor, JRS Latin America and Caribbean Communications Coordinator