No detention centre mapping data


Panama Immigration Detention

An important destination country in Central America, Panama has in recent years overhauled its migration policies in part as a response to a landmark case at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights involving the detention of migrants. Since the case was launched, Panama has adopted a new migration law, decriminalized immigration violations, and established new dedicated detention centres euphemistically called "albergues" (or shelters).

Quick Facts


Detained minors (2017): Not Available
International migrants (2015): 184,700
New asylum applications (2016): 3,457
Number of immigration detainees on a given day (2020): 2,527

Profile Updated: July 2015

Panama Immigration Detention Profile

Economic growth and geography have helped transform Panama into one of Central America’s most important immigration destination countries as well as a key transit state for people migrating north.[1] In 2013, the country’s migrant population numbered 158,400, or 4.1 percent of the country’s total population. This is four times the average ratio of foreign-born residents in the region.[2] In contrast to other receiving countries in Central America, including Costa Rica and Belize, Panama’s foreign-born population is comprised of people from Latin America and Caribbean countries, as well as various countries in Asia.[3]

In 2008 the country adopted Law Decree No. 3 and Executive Decree No. 320, which overhauled existing migration policy. Law Decree No. 3 establishes the National Migration Service and regulates visas, border control, as well as deportation and detention. Executive Decree No. 320 details the provisions of Law Decree No. 3.

Articles 65 and 66 of Law Decree No. 3 provide that the National Migration Service is to order deportation of any non-citizen who enters the country irregularly; remains undocumented; engages in conduct contrary to good morals; threatens public security, national defence, or public safety; or has served a prison sentence. Before ordering deportation, the National Migration Service is required to issue a detention order. This provision appears to resemble mandatory detention measures observed in other parts of the globe, including Malta. However, the GDP was not able to verify whether detention is systematically applied. Some reports indicate that immigration detention in the country is discretionary.[4] The maximum period of detention is 18 months (Executive Decree No. 320, article 2).

Article 66 of the Law Decree provides that detention orders are to be presented to the person in question. However, according to information provided by the Jesuit Refugees Services-Panama, in practice this information is provided only in Spanish and linguistic assistance is not generally ensured.[5] Immigration detainees have the right to communicate with legal counsel, families, and consulates (Law Decree article 94). The state does not provide legal aid and very few immigration detainees have their own legal counsel. The only legal advice is provided by NGOs (Jesuit Refugees Services and Centro de Asistencia Legal Popular) but due to their limited resources aid is not systematic or sufficient.[6]

There is no judicial review of detention. The Law Decree provides for the possibility for an appeal against deportation. It is an administrative appeal to be addressed to the General Director of the National Migration Service (articles 67 and 96). The only judicial avenue to challenge detention is habeas corpus under the constitution (article 23). However, there are very few appeals because of the lack of a proper information and legal service.[7]

Children are not placed in immigration detention. The Law Decree provides that persons below the age of 18 cannot be detained; they are placed under the responsibility of the Ministry of Social Development (article 93). In practice they are accommodated either with their relatives or in foster homes.[8]

Comprehensive statistics on the number of persons placed in immigration detention do not appear to be available. The only statistics that the GDP is aware of concern people from countries outside Latin America, so-called extracontinentales. According to official statistics, in 2009 317 non-citizens coming from other continents were detained; 503 in 2010; and 147 in 2011. The major countries of origin included China, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Somalia, Nepal, and India.[9]

Panama operates two immigration detention facilities, one for men (Albergue Masculino de Detencion) and another for women (Albergue Femenino de Detencion).[10] Both facilities are run by the National Migration Service and are located in Panama City.

The centre for men is a dedicated immigration detention centre. It has an approximate capacity of 70 but confines on average 130 people at a time. Until 2013 detainees were forced to sleep on mattresses on the floor. The facility has a yard and telephone, which detainees are allowed to use upon request. Following his September 2013 visit, the country’s Ombudsman noted positive changes such as increased visiting time up to one hour and installation of fans and TV. During his visit, 107 persons were detained at the centre.[11]

The centre for women is located inside a police station. It has a capacity of 20 and consists of a single room. The room does not have a window but has air conditioning and a TV. Detainees do not have an access to a yard and no recreational activities are provided.[12]

In 2013, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights issued a resolution on Panama’s compliance with the court’s 2010 judgement in the case of Vélez Loor. In that landmark case Panama was found to have violated several rights of the petitioner, an undocumented migrant from Ecuador. In its 2013 resolution the court found that the country failed to explain what happens to people detained outside of Panama City.[13] In fact, persons apprehended in the border areas (such as province of Darién) are detained in provisional facilities during some days before being transferred to centres in Panama City.[14]

One of the aspects of the Panama’s migration policy addressed in the Velez Loor was criminalisation of migration related offences. Panama's previous migration law (article 678 of the 1960 Law Decree No. 16) provided for prison sentences of up to 2 years for irregular re-entry. The Court ruled that criminalization of irregular entry went beyond the states’ legitimate interest in controlling irregular migration and that detention for non-compliance with migration laws should never involve punitive purposes. According to the Court, a punitive measure applied to a migrant who has re-entered the country in an irregular manner subsequent to a deportation order was not compatible with the American Convention on Human Rights. In particular, the Court ruled that article 67 did not pursue a legitimate purpose and was disproportionate, given that it established a punitive penalty for foreigners who evade previous orders for deportation and, therefore, resulted in arbitrary detentions.[15]

With the new 2008 law, which was adopted before the ruling in Velez Loor was rendered, Panama decriminalized unauthorized entry and re-entry. A similar legal trend can be observed in other countries in various regions, such as Hungary, Malta and Mexico.


[1] International Organization for Migration (IOM). Website. “Missions of the Region: Panama.” http://costarica.iom.int/en/panama/mission_more_information/ (24 June 2015).

[2] UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA). International Migration 2013 Wall Chart. http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/migration/migration-wallchart-2013.shtml

[3] O’Neil, Kevin, Kimberly Hamilton, and Demetrios Papademetriou (Migration Policy Institute). Migration in the Americas. September 2005. https://www.iom.int/jahia/webdav/site/myjahiasite/shared/shared/mainsite/policy_and_research/gcim/rs/RS1.pdf

[4] International Detention Coalition (IDC). 2014. INFORME REGIONAL DETENCIÓN MIGRATORIA Y ALTERNATIVAS A LA DETENCIÓN EN LAS AMÉRICAS. October 2014.

[5] Appel, Carolina (Servicio Jesuita a Refugiados Panama). Global Detention Project Questionnaire. January 2014.

[6] Appel, Carolina (Servicio Jesuita a Refugiados Panama). Global Detention Project Questionnaire. January 2014.

[7] Appel, Carolina (Servicio Jesuita a Refugiados Panama). Global Detention Project Questionnaire. January 2014.

[8] Appel, Carolina (Servicio Jesuita a Refugiados Panama). Global Detention Project Questionnaire. January 2014.

[9] Servicio Nacional de Migración. Flujo Migratorio de Extracontinentales tránsito por las Américas. 2012. scm.oas.org/pdfs/2012/CP28856T.ppt

[10] Appel, Carolina (Servicio Jesuita a Refugiados Panama). Global Detention Project Questionnaire. January 2014. International Detention Coalition (IDC). 2014. INFORME REGIONAL DETENCIÓN MIGRATORIA Y ALTERNATIVAS A LA DETENCIÓN EN LAS AMÉRICAS. October 2014.

[11] Federacion Iberoamericana del Ombudsman. PANAMÁ: Defensoría del Pueblo inspecciona albergue masculino del Servicio Nacional de Migración. 2013. http://www.portalfio.org/inicio/noticias/item/13082-panam%C3%A1-defensor%C3%ADa-del-pueblo-inspecciona-albergue-masculino-del-servicio-nacional-de-migraci%C3%B3n.html

[12] Appel, Carolina (Servicio Jesuita a Refugiados Panama). Global Detention Project Questionnaire. January 2014.

[13] Inter-American Court on Human Rights. RESOLUCIÓN DE LA CORTE INTERAMERICANA DE DERECHOS HUMANOS DE 13 DE FEBRERO DE 2013; CASO VÉLEZ LOOR VS. PANAMÁ SUPERVISIÓN DE CUMPLIMIENTO DE SENTENCIA. 2013. http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/supervisiones/Velez_13_02_13.pdf

[14] Appel, Carolina (Servicio Jesuita a Refugiados Panama). Global Detention Project Questionnaire. January 2014.

[15] INTER-AMERICAN COURT OF HUMAN RIGHTS. VÉLEZ LOOR v. PANAMA. 23 NOVEMBER 2010. http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_218_ing.pdf. Para. 167, 169, 171, and 172.

Centres List

No detention centres data available

Statistics Expand all



2,527

Number of immigration detainees on a given day

2020

  • Number of immigration detainees on a given day
NumberObservation Date
2,5272020


Not Available

Total number of detained minors

2017

  • Total number of detained minors
NumberObservation Date
Not Available2017


2

Number of dedicated long-term immigration detention centres

2015

  • Number of dedicated long-term immigration detention centres
NumberObservation Date
22015


90

Estimated capacity of dedicated long-term immigration detention centres

2014

  • Estimated capacity of dedicated long-term immigration detention centres
NumberObservation Date
902014


17,165

Criminal prison population

2016

  • Criminal prison population
NumberObservation Date
17,1652016
14,1702013
12,2932010
11,3452007
11,4002004
9,6262001
8,1911998
6,6071995
4,4281992


10.1

Percentage of foreign prisoners

2014

  • Percentage of foreign prisoners
PercentageObservation Date
10.12014
9.92012


421

Prison population rate (per 100,000 of national population)

2016

  • Prison population rate (per 100,000 of national population)
NumberObservation Date
4212016
3832013
3492010
3372007
3562004
3182001
2861998
2451995
1741992



3,929,000

Population

2015

  • Population
NumberObservation Date
3,929,0002015
3,600,0002012


184,700

International migrants

2015

  • International migrants
NumberObservation Date
184,7002015
158,4002013


4.7

International migrants as a percentage of the population

2015

  • International migrants as a percentage of the population
PercentageObservation Date
4.72015
4.12013


2,518

Refugees

2018

  • Refugees
NumberObservation Date
2,5182018
2,4322017
17,2922016
17,3222015
17,6652014


4.35

Ratio of refugees per 1000 inhabitants

2016

  • Ratio of refugees per 1000 inhabitants
NumberObservation Date
4.352016
4.72014
4.742012


3,457

Total number of new asylum applications

2016

  • Total number of new asylum applications
NumberObservation Date
3,4572016
1,1842014
7562012


70.7

Refugee recognition rate

2014

  • Refugee recognition rate
NumberObservation Date
70.72014


2

Stateless persons

2018

  • Stateless persons
NumberObservation Date
22018
22014

Domestic Law Expand all

Legal tradition Show sources
NameObservation Date
Civil law

Constitutional guarantees? Show sources
Yes/NoConstitution and ArticlesYear AdoptedLast Year Amended
YesConstitution of the Republic of Panama, articles 21-2320042004
Core pieces of national legislation Show sources
NameYear AdoptedLast Year Amended
Executive Decree No. 26 of 2 March 20092009
Law Decree No. 3 of 22 February of 2008 ("Nueva Ley de Migración")2008
Executive Decree No. 320 of 8 August 20082008

Immigration-status-related grounds Show sources
NameObservation Date
Detention to effect removal2015
Detention for unauthorised entry or stay2015
Detention for unauthorized stay resulting from criminal conviction2015
Non-immigration-status-related grounds providing for administrative detention in immigration legislation. Show sources
NameObservation Date
Detention on public order, threats or security grounds2015

Has the country decriminalized immigration-related violations? Show sources
Has the country decriminalized immigration-related violations?Observation Date
Yes2014

Maximum length for administrative immigration detention in law. Show sources
Number of DaysObservation Date
5402015

Provision of basic procedural standards Show sources
NameIn LawIn PracticeObservation Date
Information to detaineesYes2015
Right to legal counselYes2015
Access to free interpretation servicesNoNo2014
Access to consular assistanceYesYes2014
Access to asylum proceduresYes2014
Independent review of detentionNoNo2014
Complaints mechanism regarding detention conditionsNoNo2014
Compensation for unlawful detentionNo2014
Right to appeal the lawfulness of detentionYesYes2014

Types of non-custodial measures Show sources
NameIn LawIn PracticeObservation Date
Supervised release and/or reportingYes2014
Impact of alternatives Show sources
NameImpact of NatureObservation Date
UnknownAlternatives rarely applied2014

Is the detention of vulnerable persons provided in law? Are they detained in practice? Show sources
NameIn LawIn PracticeObservation Date
Asylum seekersNot mentionedYes2015
Accompanied minorsProhibitedNo2014
Unaccompanied minorsProhibitedNo2014

Re-entry ban Show sources
NameObservation Date
Yes2015

Latest Update Show sources
Update StatusObservation Date
Responding to the Global Detention Project’s Covid-19 survey, the director of the Panamanian section of “Fe y Alegria” an NGO part of the Jesuit Migration Network, reported that a moratorium on new immigration detention orders had been established until 8 June 2020, but that no immigration detainees were released and that those who were in detention prior to the start of the pandemic have remained in detention. The NGO indicated that authorities are carrying out tests and are monitoring migrants in the Lajas Blancas, Las Peñitas (on the Colombian border) and Los Planes (on the Costa Rican border) “albergues” (shelters or camps). In other parts of the country, migrants are only tested if they show symptoms of the disease. In addition, Fe y Alegria said that interviews to apply for refugee status or to resolve immigration status claims have been suspended along with deportation flights. He said that only “humanitarian flights” are being carried out. On 9 June, Reuters reported that Panama had confined some 200 migrants in a camp in the jungle to contain a new Covid-19 outbreak among a large group of migrants from Africa, Cuba, and Haiti, that have been left stranded by the Covid-19 crisis in the remote Darién region. During a visit of the Lajas Blancas camp on 5 June, Reuters said that some migrants were wearing masks, some were laying in tents or under tarps, enclosed by a wired fence. Medical workers were making rounds taking migrants’ temperature and blood pressure levels. Of the four migrants Reuters was able to speak to, one said that the food was of poor quality and had sickened some people at the camp. Migrants are reportedly not allowed out of the camp without authorisation, although they are allowed to buy supplies and food in nearby stores. According to Panama’s Minister of Security, six migrants in the camp have contracted Covid-19. In addition, he mentioned that the Panamanian government will soon start building a new camp with 500 spaces in the Darién region. Regarding the country’s penitentiaries, Health authorities reported a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases on 29 May. More than 333 prisoners tested positive in the Santiago prison in Vargas. This represents around two-thirds of the total facility’s population, which was initially intended to hold 150 people. On 2 June, the prison administration announced the first death of a prisoner due to Covid-19 in the Santiago prison. Also, the Nueva Joya prison has now recorded 228 cases of Covid-19, making it the second most infected prison in the country.2020
As reported previously on this platform (see the 1 June Panama update), Panama has shifted many undocumented migrants to the border with Costa Rica. The two countries have an agreement regarding migrant mobility, but the agreement cannot be enforced as Nicaragua has closed its borders. The director of the immigration authority in Costa Rica, Raquel Vargas, said that “non-citizens in Panama will not cross to Costa Rica” as Nicaragua has announced they would block the path for migrants. This has left thousands of third-country nationals in limbo in Panama, according to the UN human rights regional office in Panama ROCA. In an email to the GDP (5 June), the UN office reported that “in Panama, there are Humanitarian Temporary Stations for Migrants on the borders with Colombia and Costa Rica. Currently, there are more than 2,500 migrants from Haiti, Cuba, African and Asian countries who are in detention waiting for the borders to open to continue their journey to the North.” The UN office pointed to a recent ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which was previously discussed on this platform, saying that the court had “issued precautionary measures to Panama to protect the integrity and health of these people, given that they are in overcrowded conditions and facing an outbreak of COVID-19.”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.2020

International Law Expand all

International treaties Show sources
NameRatification Year
OP CRC Communications Procedure2017
OPCAT, Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment2011
CRSSP, Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons2011
ICPED, International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance2011
CRPD, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2008
CTOCTP, Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children2004
CTOCSP, Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime2004
CRC, Convention on the Rights of the Child1990
CAT, Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment1987
CEDAW, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women1981
CRSR, Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees1978
PCRSR, Protocol to the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees1978
ICCPR, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights1977
ICESCR, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights1977
ICERD, International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination1967
VCCR, Vienna Convention on Consular Relations1967
Ratio of relevant international treaties ratified
  16/19
Individual complaints procedure Show sources
NameAcceptance Year
ICERD, declaration under article 14 of the Convention2015
CRPD, Optional Protocol to o the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities2007
CEDAW, Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, 19992001
ICCPR, First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 19661977
Ratio of complaints procedures accepted Show sources
NumberObservation Date
4/8
4/8

Regional legal instruments Show sources
NameYear of Ratification (Treaty) / Transposed (Directive) / Adoption (Regulation)
IACPPT, Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture1991
IACFDP, Inter-American convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons1995
CBDP, Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (Convention of Belem do Para)1995
APACHR, Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights1992
ACHR, American Convention on Human Rights1978

Relevant recommendations of the UN Universal Periodic Review Show sources
Recomendation IssuedYear IssuedObservation Date
No20112017
No2015

Institutions Expand all

Federal or centralized governing system Show sources
Federal or centralized governing systemObservation Date
Centralized system2015
Centralized or decentralized immigration authority Show sources
Centralized or decentralized immigration authorityObservation Date
Centralized immigration authority2014

Custodial authority Show sources
AgencyMinistryMinistry TypologyObservation Date
Servicio Nacional de Migración Ministerio de Seguridad Pública Internal or Public Security2014
Servicio Nacional de MigraciónMinisterio de Seguridad Pública Internal or Public Security2014
Direccion Nacional de Migracion y NaturalizacionMinisterio de Gobierno y JusticiaInterior or Home Affairs2007
Detention Facility Management Show sources
Entity NameEntity TypeObservation Date
Servicio Nacional de Migración Governmental2014
Servicio Nacional de MigraciónGovernmental2014
Direccion Nacional de Migracion y NaturalizacionGovernmental2007
Formally designated detention estate? Show sources
Formally designated immigration detention estate?Types of officially designated detention centresObservation Date
YesDedicated immigration detention facilities2015
Types of detention facilities used in practice Show sources
Immigration detention centre (Administrative)Immigration field office (Administrative)Transit centre (Administrative)Reception centre (Administrative)Offshore detention centre (Administrative)Hospital (Administrative)Border guard (Administrative)Police station (Criminal)National penitentiary (Criminal)Local prison (Criminal)Juvenile detention centre (Criminal)Informal camp (Ad hoc)Immigration detention centre (Ad hoc)Surge facility (Ad hoc)Observation Date
Yes2014

Authorized monitoring institutions Show sources
InstitutionInstitution TypeObservation Date
Servicion Jesuita a Refugiados (SJR) PanamaNon-Governmental Organizations (NGO)2014
Defensoría del Pueblo National Human Rights Institution (or Ombudsperson) (NHRI)2013
Does NHRI carry out visits? Show sources
Does NHRI carry out visits in practice?Observation Date
Yes2013
Do NGOs carry out visits? Show sources
Do NGOs regularly carry our visits?Observation Date
Yes2014
Do NGOs publish reports on immigration detention? Show sources
Do NGOs publish reports on immigration detention?Observation Date
Yes2013

Socio Economic Data Expand all

Gross Domestic Product per capita (in USD) Show sources
Gross Domestic Product per capita (in USD)Observation Date
11,9482014
11,0372013
Remittances to the country Show sources
Remittances to the country (in millions USD)Observation Date
7602014
6152011
Remittances from the country Show sources
Remittances from the country (in millions USD)Observation Date
4862010
Unemployment Rate Show sources
Unemployment RateObservation Date
2014
Human Development Index Ranking (UNDP) Show sources
Human Development Index Ranking (UNDP)UNDP four-tiered rankingObservation Date
60High2015
65High2014

Additional Resources


Immigration Detention in Panama

An important destination country in Central America, Panama has in recent years overhauled its migration policies in part as a response to a landmark case at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights involving the detention of migrants. Since the case was launched, Panama has adopted a new migration law, decriminalized immigration violations, and established new […]

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