UNHCR welcomes new law giving refugees chance for Panama residency

News Stories, 1 April 2008

© UNHCR/S.Farkas
A group of Salvadoran refugees in Panama during the early 1980s.

GENEVA, April 1 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Tuesday welcomed the Panamanian parliament's endorsement of legislation that 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 its 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," UNHCR spokeswoman, Jennifer Pagonis, told journalists in Geneva.

"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," she noted.

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 President Martín Torrijos 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.