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Panama: Colombian refugees in legal limbo
09 February 2010

Colombian refugee hut in Darién province of Panama. (photo by Lucy Haley/JRS)
Washington DC, 9 February 2009 – An in-depth look at the hurdles faced by Colombian refugees in Panama.

Lucy Haley

Colombian refugees in Panama remain trapped at the border

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.” The law specifies that beneficiaries of PTH status will not enjoy the legal and social benefits afforded to refugees under the 1951 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.”

Colombian refugees in Panama face hurdles for healthcare and education

In the remote and rural towns of Jaqué and Piña obtaining adequate medical treatment is a challenge for everyone, but particularly those whose mobility is limited. There is no hospital in Jaqué, only a small health center. In the event of a medical emergency, Migration allows individuals with Temporary Humanitarian Protection to leave the community to go to hospital immediately upon the advice of a doctor. However, for non-emergency medical visits, such as health conditions that require the attention of a specialist, the process is more complicated. Refugees must present their doctor’s note to the local functionary of ONPAR who sends the requests to the Panama City office by air on a weekly basis. The Panama City office of ONPAR then communicates with Hospital Santo Tomas to arrange an appointment and calls back to Jaqué when a date is set. The functionary of ONPAR in Jaqué must then communicate the date of the appointment to the patient, something that can be difficult as not all Jaqué residents have telephones.

Colombian refugees in Panama are pressured to repatriate

The Panamanian government, in conjunction with Colombian authorities, began repatriating refugees in the Darién border region in 1996, resulting in an outcry from the international community. Despite criticism, repatriations continued, and Jaqué, as a major destination for refugees, saw various return efforts. In 2001, 48 people in Jaqué were returned to Bahía Solano, Colombia, and in December of 2003, as a result of an agreement reached between the Panamanian and Colombian governments, 85 Colombians were returned to Juradó.

Although both of these repatriation efforts were overseen by the UNHCR, doubts exist in the community regarding how voluntary the returns truly were. Interviews with residents of Jaqué suggest that the Panamanian authorities pursued a policy of intimidation in order to pressure displaced Colombians to sign return documents. As one young man describes: “They came to our house and took pictures of us as though we were criminals.”  One woman informed us that when the authorities were visiting houses “I fled to the beach because I didn’t want to go back, I took my children and I hid on the beach so they wouldn’t find me, I hid until nightfall when they had left already.”

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