Colombian Refugees in Panama: Politics and Policy

Corgan - Panama - Mural

SJR uses art projects like this mural depicting the stages of displacement as a form of therapy for many of its refugee clients.

On a wall in the office of Jesuit Refugee Service – Panama (Servicio Jesuita a Refugiados, SJR) hangs a mural, painted by SJR’s clients, depicting their journey from violent displacement in Colombia to relative safety and self-sufficiency in Panama. The mural synthesizes the stories of hundreds of SJR’s clients – refugees, asylum seekers, and the like – and serves as an expression of the human consequences of the armed conflict in Colombia.

No one knows precisely how many refugees are living in Panama today. A January 2013 estimate by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) placed the number at just over 17,000, but the agency readily admits the reality could be quite different. In recent years, other human rights organizations have estimated the number could be as high as 75,000.

Efforts to count the country’s refugee population are complicated by geography – many migrants in need of international protection live in the impenetrable forest of the Darién region and the slums of Panama City – as well as by the government’s migration policies. To date, the government has only formally recognized around 1,500 refugees. About half of these are of Colombian origin, but Central Americans, Cubans, and “extracontinental” migrants make up a significant share.

Hard figures are nearly impossible to obtain. The government agency in charge of processing refugee claims – the Oficina Nacional para la Atención de los Refugiados, ONPAR – is a virtual black hole for migrants. Though ONPAR itself does not release almost any data, SJR and other organizations believe the acceptance rate for all asylum applicants to be between 2% and 6% in any given year. The figure for Colombian applicants is likely even lower.

Economics has also complicated matters. For the last several years, Panama has boasted the fastest growing economy in Latin America. This tremendous growth has attracted tens of thousands of opportunity-seeking migrants, leading to what observers call a “mixed flow” of economic migrants and bona fide refugees from Colombia to Panama. To further complicate matters, it is not uncommon for these categories to overlap. A common story is of the business owner tired of paying protection bribes to an armed group. Afraid that if she stops paying the bribe or moves somewhere else in Colombia the armed group will kill her and her family, the business owner instead chooses to flee to Panama, hoping for both physical security and economic opportunity.

Unfortunately, many Colombian migrants find neither in Panama. Work is particularly hard to come by. Without documentation, many migrants are forced into the informal economy, where exploitation by unscrupulous employers – including the withholding of earned wages – is common. Asylum seekers – those migrants with formal applications for refugee status pending before ONPAR – are not issued work permits, and while recognized refugees are, the fact that their permits explicitly identify them as refugees confuses many potential employers, who then refuse to hire them. Many refugees and asylum seekers support themselves by selling food on the street, but the government has begun to crack down on this practice as well, as the Constitution reserves street vending for Panamanian citizens. As a consequence, many migrants and refugees in need of international protection are left with no means to support themselves and their families and little hope of formal recognition by the Panamanian government.

Refugee service agencies like SJR, HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), the Red Cross, and CEALP (Centro de Asistencia Legal Popular) have attempted to ameliorate some of the problems faced by vulnerable migrant populations in Panama, but their efforts are crippled by a lack of financial and institutional resources.

The main problem, they tend to agree, is the state’s own migration policies, and while there has been some opening on migration policy under President Ricardo Martinelli, the current administration’s migration reforms and special regularization programs have mostly benefited wealthy, skilled, “baggage-free” migrants from developed countries—not your typical refugee. For the most vulnerable migrants in Panama, then, the struggle for recognition and survival persist. One asylum seeker, while expressing her tremendous gratitude for the help that SJR has offered her and admitting that she feels physically safer in Panama than in Colombia, nonetheless summed up her experience of displacement with a melancholy all too familiar to refugees around the world. “This is the great sadness of my life,” she said.

Posted by John Corgan – MA Candidate at CLACS

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