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Helping the hidden refugees in Panama

News Stories, 17 October 2005

© UNHCR/M.Bermejo
After a two-year separation, Colombian refugee Matilde is finally reunited with her 8-year-old daughter at Panama City Airport.

PANAMA CITY, October 17 (UNHCR) It took Matilde* a whole year in Panama before she realized that she was a refugee. For almost a decade, she had lived on the run first within her own country, moving from one Colombian city to the next then across the border in Panama. In all that time, she had never thought of herself as a refugee, only as a woman who was trying to survive and save her children's lives.

Matilde's quest for a safe haven began ten years ago, when she boarded a taxi in the middle of the night and left behind the life she had always known. A former city councillor in northern Colombia, she had refused to make deals with the illegal armed groups operating in the region. This was enough to make her a target.

At first, she ignored the death threats. But it was impossible to ignore the actual deaths of friends and colleagues, brutally murdered one by one by the armed groups. She fled first to a nearby town, then to the regional capital, Baranquilla.

But the threats continued, and for eight years Matilde had to keep moving. Her family split in stages: her first husband left; her eldest daughter remained in Baranquilla. Wherever she went, it was only a matter of time before her tormentors would find her.

"Everywhere I went, I was scared," Matilde recalled. "When I was on the streets, I was scared to be stopped by members of armed groups. When I was home, I was terrified they would break in. Always, sometimes after months, sometimes years, they would find me and the threats would come."

Despite the strain of having constantly to look over her shoulder, she managed to start a new relationship, which produced her youngest child, a little girl called Socorro. But the girl's father soon left he could not live a life of persistent fear, he said.

By July 2003, Matilde had had enough. With the help of friends, she bought a ticket for Panama. Despite being a victim of years of persecution, Matilde did not think of asking for the protection to which refugees are entitled. Like many Colombian refugees in neighbouring countries, she saw herself as an illegal migrant and had no idea of her rights.

The first year was very hard: long, bleak months of badly-paid menial jobs, shared rooms and fears for the future.

The worst aspect was the separation from her family, including six-year-old Socorro.

"I could not take her with me. I did not know how I would live when I first got to Panama," she remembered. "It was awful. I thought of her all the time. Only work, and thinking that if I worked hard enough I could bring her here, has given me the strength to go on."

Life took a turn for the better when, through a chance meeting in a restaurant where she worked, Matilde was put in touch with the UN refugee agency's office in Panama City, where staff helped her navigate the lengthy and complex procedure that led to her recognition as a refugee.

"It's a classic case," said Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, who was UNHCR Representative in Panama until last month. "Many Colombians come to Panama to escape the conflict in their country, but they do not know they have rights. They don't even try to register as asylum seekers. Yet they need documents in order to work, in order to just be able to stay in the country and to receive international protection."

Since its Panama office was opened in 2003, UNHCR has advocated for a simplification of the procedure to grant refugee status and deliver proper documentation to recognized asylum seekers. Although progress has been made, the process remains cumbersome, not least because refugee ID cards and work permits have to be renewed every year.

"This creates an element of uncertainty and instability in the lives of people who have already gone through traumatic events," said Vargas Llosa. "There are refugees who have been in this country for over twenty years, and who still can't get loans, can't buy property, because of this uncertainty."

There are 835 recognized refugees in Panama. Most of them are from El Salvador and Guatemala and have lived in their adopted country for decades. However, the vast majority of all new cases are from Colombia, and UNHCR believes that thousands of people may go unregistered every year.

"The main problem with Colombian refugees in neighbouring countries," said Philippe Lavanchy, Director of UNHCR's Bureau for the Americas, "is that very often they are invisible. It is true not just in Panama, but also in Ecuador and Venezuela. A big part of our work in these places is, therefore, to let these people know that protection is available, that they don't have to hide anymore."

Matilde is no longer in hiding. Now that she has her refugee ID card and work permit, she has obtained a micro-credit loan of US$ 450 from UNHCR and started a catering service for small businesses.

She is doing well so well that at long last her number one dream has come true. Last month, after two years of waiting, she was reunited with her eight-year-old daughter Socorro. At Panama City airport, there were tears of joy when mother and daughter were finally able to embrace each other again.

"Now I've got her here, everything will be OK," Matilde managed to say, through her tears. "I have a house for her. I will send her to school. Life can start again."

* The names of Matilde and her daughter have been changed

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Colombia: Life in the Barrios

After more than forty years of internal armed conflict, Colombia has one of the largest populations of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world. Well over two million people have been forced to flee their homes; many of them have left remote rural areas to take refuge in the relative safety of the cities.

Displaced families often end up living in slum areas on the outskirts of the big cities, where they lack even the most basic services. Just outside Bogota, tens of thousands of displaced people live in the shantytowns of Altos de Cazuca and Altos de Florida, with little access to health, education or decent housing. Security is a problem too, with irregular armed groups and gangs controlling the shantytowns, often targeting young people.

UNHCR is working with the authorities in ten locations across Colombia to ensure that the rights of internally displaced people are fully respected – including the rights to basic services, health and education, as well as security.

Colombia: Life in the Barrios

Indigenous people in Colombia

There are about a million indigenous people in Colombia. They belong to 80 different groups and make up one of the world's most diverse indigenous heritages. But the internal armed conflict is taking its toll on them.

Like many Colombians, indigenous people often have no choice but to flee their lands to escape violence. Forced displacement is especially tragic for them because they have extremely strong links to their ancestral lands. Often their economic, social and cultural survival depends on keeping these links alive.

According to Colombia's national indigenous association ONIC, 18 of the smaller groups are at risk of disappearing. UNHCR is working with them to support their struggle to stay on their territories or to rebuild their lives when they are forced to flee.

UNHCR also assists indigenous refugees in neighbouring countries like Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil. UNHCR is developing a regional strategy to better address the specific needs of indigenous people during exile.

Indigenous people in Colombia

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

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