Panama: First indigenous Colombians get refugee status

Briefing Notes, 15 December 2006

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 15 December 2006, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

In a landmark step this week, 42 Colombian asylum seekers became the first ever indigenous people to be recognised as refugees in Panama. The 42 belong to the Wounaan indigenous group who fled Colombia in May after receiving death threats from an armed group. They were admitted to Panama as asylum seekers and have now been granted full refugee status by the National Eligibility Commission.

The majority of Colombians fleeing to Panama cross the border in the DariƩn jungle, a rainforest that spreads across the two countries. A significant percentage of those fleeing are indigenous groups which are increasingly becoming victims of Colombia's armed conflict. In the past, the government of Panama has only provided temporary humanitarian protection to Colombians arriving in the region in search of safety.

While temporary protection has provided a shelter from violence for some 900 Colombians, it also limits their rights and long-term prospects they do not, for example, have the right to work and their freedom of movement is limited. UNHCR has been urging the government of Panama for a review of the current legal framework, including a change of the temporary protection regime.

This week's decision is an important step in the right direction for some of the most vulnerable refugees in Panama, who can now look forward to a more secure future. Panama which is about to take its seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations' Security Council is also demonstrating its commitment to international refugee law while maintaining its national security.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Colombia to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, while within Colombia itself some three million people have been forced to displace because of the armed conflict these numbers make Colombia the worst humanitarian tragedy in the western hemisphere and the country with the largest population of concern to UNHCR in the world.