Press Release

IACHR Deeply Concerned about the Situation of Migrants in Colombia Close to the Panama Border

August 8, 2016

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its deep concern regarding the extreme vulnerability of some 1,300 migrants who are stranded in the Colombian town of Turbo, near the Darien Gap, Colombia, close to the border with Panama. Among the migrants are men and women, including pregnant women, as well as children, including newborns. Most of the migrants come from Cuba and Haiti, along with others from African and Asian countries, and are headed to the United States.

According to publicly available information, the migrants who have made it to Turbo have reached Colombia via different routes—through Venezuela, Ecuador, Guyana, or Brazil—so as to then continue their journey to the United States, passing through Central American countries and Mexico. The situation of the migrants stranded in Turbo has been exacerbated by the closure of the border and the tightening of immigration controls by Panama on May 9, 2016. The IACHR welcomes the information sent by the State that there have not been detentions of irregular migrants because this practice is not legal in the country.

According to a population survey by the Colombian Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, as of July 28, 2016, there were 1,273 Cuban migrants in vulnerable circumstances in the town of Turbo, including nearly 300 children. According to the Colombian State, the Ministry of Health and the Colombian Family Welfare Institute has been providing special attention to women and children. The Ombudsman’s Office reported that the main human rights concerns have to do with the migrants’ living quarters, problems with access to food, the risk of contracting diseases, and the potential for becoming victims of human trafficking.

According to the information presented by the State, there has been a promotion of voluntary exit of migrants from Colombian territory and through this mechanism, more than 600 migrants in irregular situation have left the country using a travel document. On this matter, the IACHR reiterates that before promoting a voluntary exit, it is the obligation of the State to identify migrants who have special needs of protection, such as asylum seekers and refugees, persons subject to complementary protection, victims of human trafficking, among others, and to adopt the measures needed for their protection.

The Commission has received information indicating that the migrants, faced with a lack of legal and safe migration channels, are turning to clandestine routes and channels, in which they are vulnerable to abuse and extortion by criminal organizations, traffickers of migrants, and some police. Moreover, there have been incidents in recent years in which migrant boats have sunk while trying to reach Panama from Colombia, resulting in migrant deaths and disappearances. On January 11, 2016, the Colombian authorities reported that a boat transporting 24 African migrants sank in the Gulf of Urabá; nine of the migrants were rescued by authorities.

The Commission has also received information regarding the dangers of death and abuse faced by migrants who have set out through the jungle region of the Darien Gap, where armed groups operate. Migrants who have traveled that route reported that they had endured inhumane conditions on the journey through the jungle and had walked by the bodies of migrants who had died and others who had suffered serious injuries and bone fractures. The Commission has also received information regarding rapes and acts of sexual violence, as well as robberies, physical blows, and extortion by traffickers of migrants and in some cases even by members of the police. The Colombian State informed it has created a unified command center that coordinates, develops and evaluates the activities of the authorities to answer to the situation, with the participation of several national and international bodies.

In keeping with Colombia’s international human rights obligations, the Commission calls on the Colombian State to implement any measures necessary to protect the life, integrity, and security of all migrants under its jurisdiction. The effective guarantee of the right to life requires the State to adopt prevention, protection, and assistance measures when it is aware of situations of migrants in danger. The State should also adopt measures to guarantee the rights to due process and judicial protection in the context of immigration proceedings, the right to family unity, the right to seek and receive asylum, the principle of non-refoulement, and the prohibition on the collective expulsion of foreign nationals. In addition, States should adopt the necessary measures to prevent and punish any abuses that individuals and State authorities may commit against migrant persons.

In the wake of the announcement by Colombia’s immigration agency, “Migración Colombia”, that it was beginning deportations of the migrants in Turbo, the IACHR reiterates that, in keeping with international norms and standards, immigration proceedings—especially those that could lead to deportation—must analyze, establish a basis for, and decide individually on each case, and must respect minimum guarantees. These include migrants’ right to be heard by the relevant authority in the context of the deportation proceedings and to have sufficient opportunity to exercise their right to a defense; the right to interpretation and translation; the right to legal representation; the right to consular protection; the right to receive notification of a deportation order; access to an effective remedy to appeal a deportation decision; the right to appeal a deportation decision; and the right to suspension of deportation while the matter is under appeal.  The State reported that to date has not been filed any remedy against the deportations. Based on the above and the extremely vulnerable situation of these migrants, the Commission notes that these people are in Turbo, a remote area of the country, and that the State should take steps to effectively implement the right to have a remedy to appeal the deportation decisions.

“The fact that migrants are turning to irregular channels and to traffickers is explained by the absence and shortage of legal and safe migration channels. We call on the American States to take immediate action to open up channels that allow these people to migrate legally and safely,” said Commissioner James Cavallaro, President of the IACHR. To that end, States can make use of programs such as humanitarian admission programs, family reunification visas, student scholarships, labor mobility programs, private sponsorships, and refugee resettlement programs.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 112/16