Panama: UNHCR calls on government to grant refugee status to 831 long-stay Colombians

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR has called on the Panamanian government to grant refugee status to 831 Colombians who have been living in the country under a precarious temporary status for more than six years. Although the government promised in March 2004 to grant the Colombians permanent legal status and some preliminary steps have been taken in that direction, the formal change is still pending.

We have been urging the Panamanian government to change the status of the Colombians for several years. Under the current classification of "temporary protection," the Colombians do not have the right to work or to move about freely. Most live in Puerto Obaldia, a Caribbean coastal town in Darién Province on the border with Colombia and in the Kuna Yala area of southern Panama.

Only by granting them refugee status will they be able to integrate in legal and economic terms. They are refugees even though the government calls them differently. We believe that the current status of the 831 Colombians is not consistent with the U.N.'s 1951 treaty on refugees, nor general human rights principles.

In April 2003, 109 Colombians, including 60 children, were forcibly returned to Colombia. Then in December 2003 Panama repatriated an additional 150 persons, but this time it acted under international agreements.

The government of Panama did legalize 838 Colombians following the election of President Martin Torrijos in May 2004 and we encourage the government to continue in that direction.