Panama

No Data

Immigration detainees

Not Available

Detained children

2017

9,726

New asylum applications

2019

2,536

Refugees

2019

185,072

International migrants

2019

Overview

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).

Types of facilities used for migration-related detention
Administrative Ad Hoc Criminal Unknown

09 June 2020

A Queue at the Entrance of the Santiago Prison in Veraguas, (La Prensa,
A Queue at the Entrance of the Santiago Prison in Veraguas, (La Prensa, "Hacinamiento y Covid-19: un cóctel letal en las cárceles," 2 June 2020, https://www.prensa.com/impresa/panorama/hacinamiento-y-covid-19-un-coctel-letal-en-las-carceles/)

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.


07 June 2020

Image of Humanitarian Temporary Station for Migrants in Panama in 2019, (IOM,
Image of Humanitarian Temporary Station for Migrants in Panama in 2019, (IOM, "Reporte de Monitoreo - Darien," 2 September 2019, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/iom_boletin_reporte_monitoreo_darien_02.09.2019.pdf)

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.”


01 June 2020

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, https://news.un.org/es/story/2020/05/1474492)

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.


Last 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.

IMMIGRATION AND DETENTION-RELATED STATISTICS

Number of immigration detainees on a given day
2,527
2020
Total number of detained minors
Not Available
2017
Number of dedicated long-term immigration detention centres
2
2015
Estimated capacity of dedicated long-term immigration detention centres
90
2014
Criminal prison population
17,165
2016
14,170
2013
12,293
2010
11,345
2007
11,400
2004
9,626
2001
8,191
1998
6,607
1995
4,428
1992
Percentage of foreign prisoners
10.1
2014
9.9
2012
Prison population rate (per 100,000 of national population)
421
2016
383
2013
349
2010
337
2007
356
2004
318
2001
286
1998
245
1995
174
1992
Population
4,300,000
2020
3,929,000
2015
3,600,000
2012
International migrants
185,072
2019
184,700
2015
158,400
2013
International migrants as a percentage of the population
4.7
2015
4.1
2013
Refugees
2,536
2019
2,518
2018
2,432
2017
17,292
2016
17,322
2015
17,665
2014
Ratio of refugees per 1000 inhabitants
4.35
2016
4.7
2014
4.74
2012
Total number of new asylum applications
9,726
2019
3,457
2016
1,184
2014
756
2012
Refugee recognition rate
70.7
2014
Stateless persons
2
2018
2
2014
Total number of immigration detainees by year
Top nationalities of detainees
Number of persons granted alternatives to immigration detention
Number of detained asylum seekers
Number of detained unaccompanied minors
Number of detained accompanied minors
Number of detained stateless persons
Number of apprehensions of non-citizens
Immigration detainees as a percentage of total international migrant population
Estimated total immigration detention capacity
Number of dedicated medium-term immigration detention centres
Number of immigration offices
Number of transit facilities
Number of criminal facilities
Number of ad hoc facilities
Number of persons removed/returned (voluntary returns and deportations)
Number of deportations/forced returns only
Percentage of persons removed in relation to total number of people placed in removal procedures
Estimated number of undocumented migrants

SOCIO-ECONOMIC INDICATORS

Gross Domestic Product per capita (in USD)
11,948
2014
11,037
2013
Remittances to the country
760
2014
615
2011
Remittances from the country
486
2010
Unemployment Rate
2014
Human Development Index Ranking (UNDP)
60 (High)
2015
65 (High)
2014
Unemployment rate amongst migrants
Net official development assistance (ODA) (in millions USD)
Detention for deterrence
Pew Global Attitudes Poll on Immigration
Immigration Index Score
World Bank Rule of Law Index
Domestic Opinion Polls on Immigration

DOMESTIC LAWS AND POLICIES

Legal tradition
Civil law
Constitutional guarantees?
Yes (Constitution of the Republic of Panama, articles 21-23) 2004 2004
2004
Core pieces of national legislation
Executive Decree No. 26 of 2 March 2009 () 2009
Law Decree No. 3 of 22 February of 2008 ("Nueva Ley de Migración") () 2008
Executive Decree No. 320 of 8 August 2008 () 2008
Immigration-status-related grounds
Detention to effect removal
2015
Detention for unauthorised entry or stay
2015
Detention for unauthorized stay resulting from criminal conviction
2015
Non-immigration-status-related grounds providing for administrative detention in immigration legislation.
Detention on public order, threats or security grounds
2015
Has the country decriminalized immigration-related violations?
Yes
2014
Maximum length for administrative immigration detention in law.
540
2015
Provision of basic procedural standards
Information to detainees (Yes)
2015
Right to legal counsel (Yes)
2015
Access to free interpretation services (No) No
2014
Access to consular assistance (Yes) Yes
2014
Access to asylum procedures () Yes
2014
Independent review of detention (No) No
2014
Complaints mechanism regarding detention conditions (No) No
2014
Compensation for unlawful detention () No
2014
Right to appeal the lawfulness of detention (Yes) Yes
2014
Types of non-custodial measures
Supervised release and/or reporting () Yes
2014
Impact of alternatives
Unknown (Alternatives rarely applied)
2014
Is the detention of vulnerable persons provided in law? Are they detained in practice?
Asylum seekers (Not mentioned) Yes
2015
Accompanied minors (Prohibited) No
2014
Unaccompanied minors (Prohibited) No
2014
Re-entry ban
Yes
2015
Additional legislation
Regulations, standards, guidelines
Does the country provide specific criminal penalties for immigration-related violations?
Grounds for criminal immigration-related detention/incarceration and maximum potential duration of incarceration
Longest recorded instance of immigration detention.
Maximum length of time in custody prior to issuance of a detention order
Average length of detention
Maximum length of detention for asylum-seekers
Maximum length of detention for persons detained upon arrival at ports of entry
Mandatory detention
Expedited/fast track removal

INTERNATIONAL LAW

Individual complaints procedure
Acceptance Year
ICERD, declaration under article 14 of the Convention 2015
2015
CRPD, Optional Protocol to o the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2007
2007
CEDAW, Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, 1999 2001
2001
ICCPR, First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 1977
1977
Ratio of complaints procedures accepted
Observation Date
4/8
4/8
Regional legal instruments
Year of Ratification (Treaty) / Transposed (Directive) / Adoption (Regulation)
IACPPT, Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture 1991
1991
IACFDP, Inter-American convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons 1995
1995
CBDP, Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (Convention of Belem do Para) 1995
1995
APACHR, Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1992
1992
ACHR, American Convention on Human Rights 1978
1978
Relevant recommendations of the UN Universal Periodic Review
Observation Date
No 2011
2017
No 2015
Ratio of relevant international treaties ratified
International treaty reservations
Treaty bodies decisions on individual complaints
Relevant recommendations issued by treaty bodies
Regional treaty reservations
Regional judicial decisions on individual complaints
Recommendations issued by regional human rights mechanisms
Bilateral/multilateral agreements linked to readmission
Visits by special procedures of the Human Rights Council
Relevant recommendations by UN Special Procedures

INSTITUTIONAL INDICATORS

Federal or centralized governing system
Centralized system
2015
Centralized or decentralized immigration authority
Centralized immigration authority
2014
Custodial authority
Servicio Nacional de Migración (Ministerio de Seguridad Pública ) Internal or Public Security
2014
Servicio Nacional de Migración (Ministerio de Seguridad Pública ) Internal or Public Security
2014
Direccion Nacional de Migracion y Naturalizacion (Ministerio de Gobierno y Justicia) Interior or Home Affairs
2007
Detention Facility Management
Servicio Nacional de Migración (Governmental)
2014
Servicio Nacional de Migración (Governmental)
2014
Direccion Nacional de Migracion y Naturalizacion (Governmental)
2007
Formally designated detention estate?
Yes (Dedicated immigration detention facilities)
2015
Types of detention facilities used in practice
Yes ()
2014
Authorized monitoring institutions
Servicion Jesuita a Refugiados (SJR) Panama (Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO))
2014
Defensoría del Pueblo (National Human Rights Institution (or Ombudsperson) (NHRI))
2013
Does NHRI carry out visits?
Yes
2013
Do NGOs carry out visits?
Yes
2014
Do NGOs publish reports on immigration detention?
Yes
2013
Apprehending authorities
Is the national human rights institution (NHRI) recognized as independent?
Does NHRI have capacity to receive complaints?
Does NHRI publicly release reports on immigration detention?
Does national preventive mechanism (NPM) carry out visits?
Does NPM have capacity to receive complaints?
Does NPM publicly release reports on immigration detention?
NGO capacity to receive complaints?
Do parliamentary organs carry out visits?
Do parliamentary organs have capacity to receive complaints?
Do parliamentary organs publicly report on their detention findings?
Do internal inspection agencies (IIAs) carry out visits?
Do IIAs have capacity to receive complaints?
Do IIAs publicly report their findings from detention inspections?
Do international and/or regional bodies (IRBs) visit immigration-related detention facilities?
Do IRBs publicly report their findings from inspections?
Types of privatisation/outsourcing
Detention contractors and other non-state entities
Estimated annual budget for detention operations
Estimated annual budgets for particular detention-related activities
Estimated cost per detainees day (in USD)
Estimated annual budget for non-custodial measures (in USD)
Estimated costs of non-custodial measures (in USD)
Does the country receive external sources of funding?
Description of foreign assistance