Since 1990, Panama has been selected as the new home for many Latin American refugees, especially from Nicaragua, Colombia, El Salvador, Venezuela and Cuba. The current figure is around 16,000 cases of international protection, which has prompted organizations such as the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to join the implementation of its reception system..
It should be noted that, according to Panamanian legislation, a refugee is an individual who fears being in his country of origin, either because of violence, discrimination or risks to his integrity. However, throughout history, political asylum has been the most used in the nation. Some cases of famous people are:
- Jorge Serrano Elías. Former president of Guatemala who, due to his strategy of suspending the constitution and the supreme court in 1993, the army turned its back on him. From that date on, he settled in Panama.
- Abdalá Bucaram. Considered one of the most corrupt presidents of Ecuador, by allocating the nation’s budget for purposes still unknown. In 1997 he was welcomed by the Panamanian government, and in 2009 he was granted permanent residency.
Read on and find out why even retired politicians from different countries consider Panama an excellent option to take refuge. And we will explain all the steps you must follow during the immigration process.
First considerations to request protection in Panama
The first aspect to take into account is that the procedures are governed by Executive Decree number 5 published on January 16, 2022 (available here ). It establishes the so-called ” gender cause “, which encourages the inclusion of the following points, so that they are eradicated:
- Domestic violence from any member of the family.
- Sexual abuse of all kinds.
- Punishments to comply with traditions or moral customs.
- Discrimination for being LGBT people (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender).
On the other hand, the entity that processes all international protection petitions in Panama is the National Office for the Attention of Refugees (ONPAR). It operates hand in hand with the Ministry of Government, UNHCR, the National Commission for the Protection of Refugees (CONARE), the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and humanitarian organizations such as HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society).
However, ONPAR and CONARE are the ones who will finally give a positive or negative answer to the different cases analyzed. For this, you do not require intermediaries and the process is free in each of its steps. If you have any questions, you can contact us by phone or email: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com .
Now, to start the application process, it is best that you are within the territory . However, it is also valid to announce the request at regular land borders or at the airport . Let’s see what to do in each instance:
- Within Panama. In a period of 180 days, at the most, you have to initiate and formalize the request. In the next section we will explain all the steps to take.
- Regular land borders. Go to a Migratory Reception Station and present your case. Keep in mind that there are many authorities that can assist you: National Police, Ombudsman’s Office, National Migration Service (SNM), National Border Service (SENAFRONT), National Naval Service (SENAN), etc.
- Airport. Go to the SNM to process your declaration. Remember that to use this means of access you must have all access documents in order, such as passport, 500 USD in cash, yellow fever vaccine and visa (applies to Venezuelans).
Procedure to process an asylum request in Panama
To start the procedure, the first thing is to introduce the formal request through a letter. Those who are already in the interior of the country have a term of six months ; but, the ideal is to do it as soon as possible after admission. Because there is no time to lose!
You can take the document personally to the ONPAR or authorize a legal representative . Other offices that can receive it are those of ACNUR, CONARE, SNM and HIAS . The information contained in the document is:
- Personal data.
- Names and location of immediate family members.
- Explanatory account of the situation that makes you deserve international protection.
- Contact information.
If you indicate that you want a recognition of refuge at borders or airport, this step is omitted. The authorities assigned to you in those places will already ask you for this document, in order to allow you access to the territory. The document will be sent to the competent entities within 24 hours.
Once the document has been delivered, you should expect a notification from ONPAR with the subsequent steps. However, the most advisable thing to do, based on previous cases, is to make a call to the offices to schedule the appointment. The telephone numbers: +507 512-7229/ 512-7230 .
Step 1. Appointment
Again, bring the above document and all your identification documents, as this saves the officials a lot of headaches by not having to search through their files. With the case information in hand, you will be asked to fill out an online form. Here you will have to list family members and be specific about the details that prompted you to flee your home country.
You have the right to select the gender of the person who attends your appointment. In addition, you may be assigned an interpreter if your native language is not Spanish. Remember that nothing requires any payment, it is a totally free process.
Step 2. Certificate delivery
Subsequently, ONPAR will deliver or notify you when to pick up a certificate that proves that you are requesting refuge in Panama. Years ago, this document was personalized to each member of the family nucleus that was in the petition form. However, nowadays, you will only receive a single certificate with the names of all those registered. And additionally, the date of the formal interview.
Obtain the necessary photocopies of the certificate and give one to each relative, since it is the official document that protects you as a refugee applicant. It has a QR code that will be scanned by immigration officials or police officers who wish to know your status in the country. In other words, if you wish to assert your right of non-refoulement and avoid inconveniences, then remember to carry this document with you at all times.
As you will understand, this is an endorsement for use in Panamanian territory. But it is not an identification document, nor a free transit document to enter and leave the country. Ideally, while your case is being solved, you should stay in your area of domicile. Although if for extreme reasons you are forced to travel, you will have to previously request an authorization from ONPAR.
Step 3. Interview
As we indicated in step #2, accompanied by the certificate is the date and time of the personal interview . Here, again, you will be assisted by an ONPAR official, to whom you will have to give all the information contained in the online form . Answer the different questions that they ask you, honestly , without exaggerating; with only the truth of the lived facts .
You can also take the opportunity to submit documents or evidence to support your story. What is not mandatory ; but that, without a doubt, will help to understand more clearly the risk situation for you and your family.
Keep in mind the following aspects:
- ONPAR may request that your family members be admitted to the interview, or ask questions on an individual basis.
- You have the right to choose the sex of the official.
- You can request a professional interpreter in your language.
- You do not require lawyers or intermediaries on the day of the interview.
- The information given throughout the process is confidential. This means that it will only be communicated to the person to whom the case is assigned.
Step 4. ONPAR admission process
After the interview, ONPAR will make a more detailed evaluation of the asylum request. Depending on the evidence, the credibility of the testimony and the reasons for fleeing the country, it will then decide whether or not to accept the procedure.
The results will be notified to your address or email . Although you have the option to track the status by scanning the QR code found on the application certificate, mentioned in step #2. Let’s see what happens next:
- Admission. Once you are aware of the progress, go to the SNM where you will receive a card for you and each of your family members, valid for 6 months (extendable for the same period). In addition, you will receive a provisional identification document that certifies that the case is in the hands of CONARE; this is the fundamental requirement to process a work permit for one year. For more information on how to work legally, contact the NRC at (507) 6589 5016, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Non-admission. A notification with this sentence indicates that ONPAR has decided that the case does not proceed to CONARE. You have 5 business days after receiving the notice to file an appeal for reconsideration.
Step #5. CONARE statement
Once CONARE receives the procedures accepted by ONPAR, it will proceed to make a more exhaustive evaluation. Based on this, she will decide if the resolution is positive or negative. Find out what to do with both responses:
- Positive resolution. You are accepted to be an international protégé for Panama. So now you must go to ONPAR so that they give you the formal communication and with it you can start the documentation procedures in SNM; which includes your spouse and children up to 25 years old who depend on you economically. The card granted will be for temporary residence as a refugee with one year of validity (extendable for the same period). Remembering that it is the requirement to be able to work, but now you will visit the Ministry of Labor and Labor Development.
- Negative resolution. When the recognition as a refugee is not approved, you can use an appeal for reconsideration before CONARE. If there is no change, you can appeal to the Ministry of Government. You have 5 working days to proceed.
If the answers are still negative, the ideal is to look for another way to regularize your legal status in the country. Or simply return to your country of origin. However, before making a decision or if you have any doubts (even if the resolution was positive) you can contact the NRC, by phone (507) 6589 5016 or email email@example.com.
Rights and duties as an asylum seeker
OPNAR, CONARE and UNHCR work hard so that Panama can provide a good support and reception system to foreigners who require it. Therefore, refugee laws clearly establish the rights and duties of these citizens:
|Neither rejection nor return at the applicant’s border, even if the entry has not been regular. Waiver of penalties associated with this charge.
|Respect the laws established in the country.
|To education, health care and housing.
|Respect the decisions of ONPAR and CONARE, appealing for reconsideration by the established instances.
|To opt for permanent residence after being accepted as a refugee for more than 3 years.
|Identify yourself with the current documents that guarantee your status as an applicant or refugee. And notify ONPAR immediately in case of theft or loss.
|Apply for a work permit with a provisional card.
|Maintain up-to-date address and contact information.
|To participate in social plans of the government or non-profit organizations.
|Do not leave the country without authorization from ONPAR, until refugee status is defined.
|Apply for family reunification after being accepted as a refugee.
Panama, without a doubt, offers one of the most important benefits for refugees and asylum seekers, is that, after living for three years or more in the country, it offers the option of permanent residency. This opens the door to longer work contracts and even investments, which is the main motivation for those who arrive in the territory. To proceed, you will only have to go to the SNM with the following requirements:
- Form provided by the agency.
- Resolution of approval of refuge.
- Photocopy of the refugee card.
- Work permit, certified by ONPAR.
- Criminal record from Panama.