Colombians should not be forcibly returned from Panama, says UNHCR
BOGOTA, Colombia, April 24 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has protested Panama's forced return of a group of Colombians - more than half of them children - and is working with the Colombian government to provide emergency assistance to the deportees.
On Monday, 109 Colombians were forced to leave the remote area of Alto Tiura in El Darién province, Panama, where some had sought refuge as early as December 2001 to escape the conflict in Colombia. Among the deportees were 63 children, while some Colombian mothers were forced to leave their Panama-born children behind.
On Tuesday, UNHCR officials interviewed the deportees who were housed temporarily at a school in the border town of Zapzurro, on Colombia's Caribbean coast. Recounting the events, they reported that the Panamanian National Guard had arrived in Punusa in the Alto Tiura area and told them they were being moved to a safer location with assistance. When some of the Colombians refused to move or tried to escape, they were forced onto helicopters, which took them to the Colombian side of the border.
The deportees also claimed that the Panamanian authorities forced them to sign a document declaring that their return to Colombia was voluntary.
The UN refugee agency on Wednesday cautioned that the deportation would have serious implications for the protection of people fleeing the Colombian conflict. UNHCR's position is that persons of concern should not be forced or pressured into returning to their country of origin against their will.
Since 2001, UNHCR has urged the Panamanian government to co-ordinate efforts to protect and assist displaced Colombians in the border areas of Panama and Colombia.
Monday's deportation may be repeated in other remote areas of the Darién region of Panama, warned the refugee agency, adding that this would go against its agreements with the governments of Panama and Colombia that require UNHCR to be informed of any initiatives to repatriate Colombians. These initiatives would also have to be carried out in an open manner and according to the basic principles of voluntariness, safety and dignity, reiterated UNHCR.
The refugee agency has provided the deportees in Zapzurro with food and basic emergency assistance. It is also co-ordinating with the Colombian authorities to ensure that these displaced people receive the necessary assistance. At the same time, UNHCR is monitoring the situation closely, clarifying it with authorities from both countries and insisting that the basic norms of international refugee law must be observed by all concerned.
Panama hosts more than 1,500 registered refugees and persons under a special humanitarian protection status, many of them in the Darién region. The majority of them are Colombian citizens.