Sunday, July 27, 2008

United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees- Panama

Shani Adess writes from Panama:

This summer I worked with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees and the Panamanian Red Cross in Panama City, Panama. Panama’s location, directly north of Colombia, has made it a prime asylum state for refugees fleeing Colombia’s decade’s long conflict. Unfortunately, adding to the numerous problems that asylum seekers and refugees regularly face, such as trauma, poverty, physical and mental health issues, and the loss of contact with family and friends, Colombian asylum seekers and refugees in Panama also face an extremely restrictive national refugee policy, and generalized anti-Colombian sentiment among the Panamanian population.

As a result, asylum seeker and refugee families often face significant obstacles when attempting to obtain rights under Panamanian law, such as residency, work permits, etc. Working with the Panamanian Red Cross, a partner of UNHCR, I developed for future implementation a livelihood program that would help provide employment opportunities or vocational training for refugees. I also participated in training sessions, prepared specifically for the national police, in order to advocate for refugee rights and promote awareness of the situation asylum seekers and refugees face in Panama today.
Working with both UNHCR and the Panamanian Red Cross gave me an invaluable opportunity to meet directly with both urban refugees and refugees in the DariĆ©n, the jungle located between Panama and Colombia- where the road literally ends. This is a unique experience that I was so glad to be able to take advantage of. Usually, UNHCR follows a policy of encampment in rural areas, often due to host governments’ restrictions; Panama is one of the few countries where urban refugees make up a majority of the refugee population. Still, I was able to experience was a ‘refugee camp’ would be like, visiting refugees living side by side with indigenous groups in an area well beyond the beaten path.
Without the Equal Justice Foundation fellowship, and your kind contributions, I would never have been able to accept this summer internship. As a rising third year law student, I was under significant pressure to follow the norm and accept a firm job. After years of doing public service oriented internships, my bank account would never have afforded me the opportunity to go abroad and work for free. It has been a long time goal of mine to work for both UNHCR and the Red Cross- and now I was able to do both, and hopefully I will continue doing so in the future!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am glad you've shared your experience, but can someone tell me how much such establishments (like yours) have benefitted refugees lives; any changes made to the way refugees and asylum seekers are treated in countries like Panama. I am trying to help those who flee their countries to seek safety, and end up in prisons in Panama. I know individual cases where people have been held for over a year and are still in custody, and are still unsure of what's going to happen to them. They have spoken to the UN and completely lost thier confidence with the organisation's ability to help them. The time gap between the UN's visits to the prisons(the UN might call them refugee camp/detention centres but the people in them are imprisoned)is 6 months, and still they ask people to be patient and wait as their case is in process. Every minute these people are held, is taken away from their lives (and thier families' lives). These are people like you and me who have lives and just happened to be in a desperate situation (often as a result of our choice of governments and life style). Academic findings, experience and eye witness accounts are surely not only to be discussed and written about in reports, but also to be used to make a difference. The Afghan, Somalian, Palestinian and Colombian Asylum Seekers in Panama are running out of options, lawyers, immigration, UN etc are not responding. If anyone has any suggestions of what actions they can take, please leave a comment and I will do my best to pass it on to these individuals. Thanks

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