Press Release

IACHR and MESENI Visit Panama to Monitor the Situation of Nicaraguan Migrants and Refugees

October 25, 2019

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Washington, D.C. - As part of the work of the Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI), the IACHR Rapporteur for Panama, Commissioner Flavia Piovesan, conducted a working visit to the country between September 16 and 17, 2019, in the company of staff from the IACHR Executive Secretariat. The purpose of the visit was to monitor the circumstances of Nicaraguans who have been forced to flee their country because of the human rights crisis that began there in April 2018.

The IACHR met with state authorities from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ombud’s Office, the Department of Migration, and the National Department for the Protection and Care of Refugees (ONPAR), a subsidiary of the National Commission for Refugees (CONARE). These organizations described their actions, provided official data on migration issues, and expressed their concerns about the challenges around helping Nicaraguan migrants and refugees integrate better into Panama, in view of the increase in the number of requests for asylum the country has received. The IACHR also met with the Deputy Representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Panama and with the regional representative of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The IACHR and the UNHCR visited the Hogar Luisa Center for Comprehensive Refugee and Migrant Care together.

The IACHR wishes to thank the Panamanian state for agreeing to this visit. It is also grateful to the authorities who are responsible for caring for and protecting refugees for being open to addressing matters of concern for the IACHR. At the same time, the IACHR acknowledged and praised the support it received from civil society organizations and the UN agencies mentioned above.

As it has noted before, particularly in its Report on the Forced Migration of Nicaraguans to Costa Rica (report in Spanish), the IACHR has identified the movement of Nicaraguans to other countries as being an example of forced migration due to the serious human rights crisis that the country has been experiencing since the state began to repress social protests on April 18, 2018. Specifically, the UNHCR reported that Panama has received a total of 6,041 requests for asylum from Nicaraguans since that point. The state of Panama reported that it had received a growing number of requests for asylum, which come on top of the total 15,000 it received between 2014 and 2019. At least 6,000 are from families or people who have been displaced from Nicaragua. In response, ONPAR explained that a pre-admissibility stage has been included in the evaluation process to discard any requests for which there are clearly no grounds.

During the visit, Nicaraguans now living in Panama gave testimony to the IACHR and discussed the difficulties they have faced in connection with migration procedures and being granted refugee status. They explained to the IACHR that they were afraid of returning to the country because of the ongoing crisis and because of the risk of reprisals against them for having taken part in the public demonstrations. They also reported on the obstacles they are facing when it comes to accessing work, education, and other services in Panama. In this sense, the IACHR drew attention to the testimonies of Nicaraguan students who reported that they had been unable to access education or resume their university degrees because they do not have the correct paperwork or academic records from Nicaragua. This implies that people are being exposed to the risk of revictimization, as many of them were forced to flee Nicaragua as a result of the state repression of the student sector over its role in the social process that began in April 2018.

The IACHR welcomed Panama’s decision to implement Executive Decree no. 5 of January 16, 2018, on the matter of refugees. This legal instrument includes the gender criteria as a factor for verifying whether applicants’ fear of persecution is well-founded and assigning them refugee status. The IACHR also looked favorably on the fact that article 86 of the decree authorizes the main departments that are responsible for refugee policies to interact with other government and nongovernmental organizations and even contemplates the possibility of cooperation with international organizations. Likewise, the IACHR appreciated the development and implementation of mechanisms to protect children who are seeking asylum, for whom a special procedure has been set in place.

With regard to the asylum-related files that have accumulated at the ONPAR, the IACHR received information from international organizations and the community of this place Nicaraguans suggesting that the pre-admissibility criteria are preventing people from enjoying the rights and guarantees that are an inherent part of the protection that asylum seekers are entitled to. These restrictions included the following: i) the limited access to formal employment, ii) the lack of formal documents proving the asylum seeker’s status that are recognized by law enforcement agents; and iii) the impossibility of obtaining other documents that would allow them to move freely within the country, such as drivers’ licenses.

The IACHR recalled that intra-American standards authorize states to implement measures to identify and fast-track the processing of requests for asylum that are clearly unfounded. However, the IACHR also noted that it was essential for all procedures for recognizing refugee status to comply with guarantees of due process, which include providing applicants with proof of identity so that they can access the services that asylum-seekers are entitled to from the point at which they request asylum or other forms of international protection.
“The information that was gathered during the visit made it clear that the essential tasks of migrant-receiving states include protecting and supporting efficient, sustainable social integration processes for people who have been displaced by persecution and violence. These states must also provide protection and access to identity documents and services and guarantee asylum-seekers access to formal employment,” said the rapporteur on the rights of migrants, Commissioner Luis Ernesto Vargas. Commissioner Flavia Piovesan, the rapporteur for Panama, added: “The possibility of accessing formal employment is central to achieving high-quality social inclusion and protecting the rights of migrants and refugees.”

The IACHR drew particular attention to the efforts made by Nicaraguan asylum seekers in Panama to provide the delegation with information and testimonies. Those who did so included journalists, human rights defenders, students, and other victims of the human rights violations that have been taking place in Nicaragua since the crisis began on April 18, 2018. On this point, the IACHR called once more on the state of Nicaragua to guarantee safe conditions of return for these people, which necessarily implies the government immediately ceasing the repression and persecution of those who are identified as government dissidents.

Finally, the IACHR repeated that the forced migration of Nicaraguans will continue to increase until the state of Nicaragua ceases the current repression and criminalization of any form of peaceful protest and expression of political dissent. In this regard, it considers it necessary for the countries of the Americas to develop a coordinated human rights-based response to the crisis. One core aspect of this should be the principle of shared responsibility for responding to the forced displacement of Nicaraguans before, during, and after this occurs. The IACHR urged all states in the region to guarantee that Nicaraguan nationals are able to enter their territory and seek asylum there, and to provide protection for those who need it.

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 and to defend 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. 272/19