UNHCR welcomes new Panama law

Briefing Notes, 1 April 2008

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 1 April 2008, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

A new law in Panama will give many refugees who have been in the country since the Central American wars of the early 1980s the chance to apply for permanent residency.

The National Assembly passed Bill 298 on the regularization of long-standing refugees in Panama on third reading last week. The new law will give recognized refugees who have been in Panama for more than 10 years the right to apply for permanent residency. After five years of permanent residence, they will be able to apply for Panamanian nationality.

UNHCR welcomes this legal development, which offers long-term refugees an opportunity to settle fully in Panama. Mostly, these are refugees from Nicaragua and El Salvador who came to Panama during the countries' conflicts. While most repatriated when peace returned, some opted to stay and settle with their families.

Until now, these refugees and their families, some of whom arrived in Panama as long as 25 years ago, had been living under a temporary status, which greatly impeded their opportunities for integration. It was, for example, very difficult for them to buy a house, open a bank account or get stable employment.

The bill is expected to be signed by the president within the coming weeks and to come into effect in the following six months. It will apply only to those refugees who were granted status 10 years or more before the law came into force. UNHCR is advocating for other refugees to be provided with the long-term opportunity to find durable solutions in Panama.

The majority of other refugees who arrive in Panama today come from its southern neighbour Colombia. In all, there are almost 1,000 refugees in Panama and another 900 people who live in the most remote and isolated regions of the country under a system known as Temporary Humanitarian Regime.

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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