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 Darién, 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!