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01 June 2020 – Panama

Migrants Crossing the 'Rio Turquesa' Close to the First Panamanian Village on the Border with Colombia, (William Urdaneta, UNICEF,
Migrants Crossing the 'Rio Turquesa' Close to the First Panamanian Village on the Border with Colombia, (William Urdaneta, UNICEF, "Migrantes en Panamá: entre sueños y esperanzas en medio del COVID-19," 15 May 2020,

Responding to the Global Detention Project’s Covid-19 Survey, the UN human rights regional office in Panama (ROCA) reported that Panama has not established a moratorium on new immigration detention orders and that the country is not contemplating the measure. ROCA also explained that no immigration detainees have been released and that there are no “alternatives to detention” programs employed in the country. As regards deportations and expulsions, the UN office said that while these have been temporarily suspended, there is no specific measure prohibiting them. Panama has extended refugee applicants’ permits for the duration of the quarantine so that these do not expire during the crisis.

IOM reported that per year, Panama receives around 25,000 migrants and/or asylum seekers (2,000 per month), most of whom are seeking to journey to the United States. Due to border closures caused by the Covid-19 crisis, vulnerable migrant and refugee populations are stranded between Panama, Colombia and Costa Rica. The IOM Director in Panama, said that “migrants and refugees are the most at risk and vulnerable population, and in consequence, we should not exclude them from the Covid-19 strategy response, given that protecting their rights and dignity signifies responding to the humanitarian needs of all.” IOM, in collaboration with UNHCR, has been providing food and sanitary products to alleviate the risk of contagion. In its survey response, the UN human rights office reported that immigration detainees are tested for Covid-19 in migrant reception centres.

On 15 May, the UN reported in a news release that the four immigration reception centres in Panama are currently holding 2,527 persons with most originating from Haiti, Congo, Bangladesh, and Yemen. One of the centres, “La Peñita,” houses 1,724 persons, of which 500 are children. Prior to the start of the Covid-19 crisis, migrants would, on average, spend a week in immigration centres, during which fingerprints would be taken and any other medical examinations would be conducted by the Ministry of Health. However, since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, migrants have been obliged to stay in the centres until borders are re-opened, creating uncertainty as to how long they will be held.

On 30 May, the Panamanian government announced that it intends to transport around 1,900 migrants, who have been stranded in the country due to Covid-19, closer to the border with Costa Rica, following a resolution by the Inter-American Court. Three days earlier, the Court requested that Panama provide “access to essential health services without discrimination to all persons that are held in the immigration reception centres of La Peñita and Laja Blanca, including Covid-19 screening.” In the former centre, at least 17 people have tested positive for the virus. The Court’s decision was motivated by several factors including overcrowding, lack of primary health services and measures to avoid contagion, as well as border closures. In relation to overcrowding, it was mentioned that one of the centres was seven times over its capacity and that the country’s explanations were insufficient to justify or demonstrate the observance of WHO standards. In consequence, the Court requested that urgent measures be adopted and asked Panama to prepare a report, before 10 June, on compliance with the requested measures.