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Panama: agreement signed for permanent UNHCR presence

Briefing Notes, 2 April 2004

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 2 April 2004, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR signed an agreement with the Government of Panama yesterday to pave the way for establishment of a permanent presence in the country. The agreement was signed during a visit to Panama City by the head of UNHCR's Americas Bureau, Hope Hanlan. Although we have been working for several years with Panamanian authorities and civil society from our offices in other countries, having a foothold in Panama will help to reinforce local partnerships and support efforts to protect and assist refugees and other persons in need of international protection in the country.

There are some 1,970 refugees, asylum seekers and persons under temporary humanitarian protection in Panama. The vast majority are Colombians living in the regions of Darién and Kuna Yala, along the border with Colombia.

UNHCR is currently providing technical and financial support to relevant state institutions and implementing projects through its counterpart, the Panamanian Office for Assistance to Refugees (ONPAR), as well as through some non-governmental organisations.

The programmes are in urban and rural areas and focus on legal and humanitarian assistance, health and education. In Darién and Kuna Yala provinces, UNHCR is carrying out Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) to promote self-sufficiency and integration of refugees with the local population. The projects include water supply, garbage treatment and small agricultural, fishing and trade projects. Other community projects include the construction of a health centre and a river boat ambulance.

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Panama's Hidden Refugees

Colombia's armed conflict has forced millions of people to flee their homes, including hundreds of thousands who have sought refuge in other countries in the region.

Along the border with Colombia, Panama's Darien region is a thick and inhospitable jungle accessible only by boat. Yet many Colombians have taken refuge here after fleeing the irregular armed groups who control large parts of jungle territory on the other side of the border.

Many of the families sheltering in the Darien are from Colombia's ethnic minorities – indigenous or Afro-Colombians – who have been particularly badly hit by the conflict and forcibly displaced in large numbers. In recent years, there has also been an increase in the numbers of Colombians arriving in the capital, Panama City.

There are an estimated 12,500 Colombians of concern to UNHCR in Panama, but many prefer not to make themselves known to authorities and remain in hiding. This "hidden population" is one of the biggest challenges facing UNHCR not only in Panama but also in Ecuador and Venezuela.

Panama's Hidden Refugees