UNHCR concerned over deportation of Colombians from Panama
23 April 2003
The UN refugee agency today expressed serious concern over reports of a forced return from Panama on Monday of 109 Colombians, including 63 children. These actions have serious implications for the protection of refugees, asylum seekers and persons of concern fleeing the conflict in Colombia.
On Tuesday, UNHCR officials interviewed Colombian families housed temporarily at a school in the border town of Zapzurro, on Colombia's Caribbean coast. The Colombians had fled into the remote area of Alto Tiura in El Darién province, Panama, some of them as early as December 2001, to escape the conflict in Colombia. Since 2001, UNHCR has urged the Panamanian government to co-ordinate government action in order to provide protection and assistance to this population.
Those interviewed declared to UNHCR that Panamanian immigration authorities and the Panamanian National Guard arrived in Punusa and told them they were moving them to a safer place where they would receive assistance. When some of them refused to move or tried to escape, they were manhandled by the National Guard and taken by force into helicopters. They were then taken to the Colombian side of the border.
Of particular concern to UNHCR is the fact that, during the operation, some families were separated. In some cases, Colombian mothers were forced to leave their Panamanian-born children behind.
The Colombians claim that the Panamanian authorities forced them to sign a document stating that they were returning voluntarily to Colombia. UNHCR's position is that persons of concern should not be forced or pressured into returning to their country of origin against their will.
The UN refugee agency is providing the deportees in Zapzurro with food and basic emergency assistance. UNHCR will co-ordinate with the Colombian authorities to ensure that they receive the necessary assistance.
UNHCR is also concerned that such returns might occur in other isolated areas of the Darién region of Panama. This would go against agreements between both governments with UNHCR to the effect that UNHCR would be informed of any initiatives to facilitate the repatriation of Colombians and that such initiatives would be carried out in an open manner and according to the basic principles of voluntariness, safety and dignity.
UNHCR is closely monitoring the situation and is contacting the authorities in both countries to clarify this situation and to insist that the basic norms of international refugee law be observed by all concerned.