System Under Strain: Panama Unable to Accommodate Rapid Increase in Asylum Claims

When we think about Central American refugees and asylum seekers, we tend to think about the unaccompanied minors who arrived in the United States last summer after fleeing violent gangs in the Northern Triangle countries—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. However, as HIAS Vice President of Policy & Advocacy, Melanie Nezer, observes in her recent Op-Ed for Fox News Latino, many refugees fleeing gang violence in the Northern Triangle are now arriving in Panama instead. This influx of refugees has placed tremendous strain on Panama’s already-stretched asylum system.

After an irregular entry into Mexico near Ciudad Hidalgo, to move north through the country, to the US border, many Central and South American migrants begin their journey in Arriaga, Chiapas, Mexico, the railhead of the freight train known as 'La Bestia' (The Beast), climbing atop of the rail cars, exposed to the elements and extortion by criminal gangs lying in wait along the route.  Vendors sell food, water and cardboard pallets to lie on for the journey.

Nezer explains that while most of the refugees in Panama are Colombian, a regional increase in asylum applications from newly arriving Northern Triangle refugees has highlighted many problems within the Panamanian asylum system. The system is underfunded and cannot accommodate the increase in asylum claims from 1,800 total during the year 2014 to 1,600 filed between January and July 2015.

Since most asylum seekers from Central American countries are families with children, the screening processes take much longer upon their arrival in Panama. Asylum seekers are prohibited from working in Panama and many report having faced police harassment or open discrimination against migrants within urban centers.

Despite these daily difficulties, Central American refugees hope that they will be able to remain in Panama. Many refugee parents have expressed concern about their children being “claimed” by gangs at birth, becoming romantically involved with gang members, or being recruited to gangs from an extremely young age. In Panama, their children can pursue an education and experience a much safer childhood.

Although circumstances may be better for Central American refugees in Panama than in the Northern Triangle countries, the U.S. government and the Mexican government have made it dangerous and almost impossible for refugees who cannot flee to Panama to flee further north to the U.S.uac2015_001

Nezer asserts in her piece that, “Central Americans who cannot remain safely in their countries must be helped in their journey to find safety somewhere.”