Panama is host to a large number of refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from Colombia. They arrive due to Panama’s proximity, but also primarily due to its economic growth. However, because of high levels of inequality and criminal activity, the displaced youth who arrive are at great risks. The increase in violence, gangs, drugs or bullying affects everyone. However, young refugees do face additional threats such as discrimination, xenophobia, and difficulties in access to education or employment. In light of these risks, RET International has been working in Panama for the socio-economic integration of adolescents and youth and their families who are in need of international protection. The activities conducted at RET will help the youth integrate into their host communities and improve their quality of life by means of a quality education, strong life skills and strengthened local institutions.
The Crisis Affecting Panama
Its Impact on Young People
How RET Protects Them
1. The Crisis Affecting Panama
In the UNDP’s Report on Human Development (2014) Panama holds the 65th position. This puts it in fourth place within the Latin American region. However, Panama also has one of the highest coefficients of social economic inequality of the region, as well as, one of the highest gender inequality.
In this country of contrasts, large parts of the population live in high levels of vulnerability amidst an economic growth that has lowered unemployment to only 3%.
According to ONPAR, Panama’s National Bureau for Refugees, the country hosts 2’208 recognised refugees, 1’240 individuals requesting asylum, 412 persons within the scope of the law 81 and an estimated 15’000 persons with need of international protection, but which have not been recognised. The majority of refugees in Panama come from neighbouring countries of the region such as Colombia (90%) El Salvador, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
Despite the progress in the Colombian peace negotiations, those in need of international protection continue to arrive in Panama. This is, of course, due to geographical proximity, but also to the economic growth of the country. Unfortunately, they do not always realise the difficulties they will have to overcome during and after the process of requesting asylum. Panamanian laws are restrictive, specifically in terms of access to livelihoods.
In addition, the drug trade manifests itself through multiple forms: production, consumption, transit, storage, as well as, money laundering. Criminal activity, gangs and violence are its consequences in society.
2. Its Impact on Young People
According to the 2014 Report on Human Development of Panama the country is going through a process of demographic transition towards older age groups. Young people are decreasing as a proportion of the total population. Absolute numbers, however, are set to continue growing until 2020.
An expansion of the educational sector has increased assistance to adolescents from 13 to 17 years old. However, the dropout rate continues to be high due to the need to provide resources for the family, lack of interest, domestic work or early pregnancy. Enrolment in education for the 18 to 24 year olds have not increased at all, as opportunities for higher education are lacking.
Youth in Panama are extremely exposed to violence. Forty-five percent of homicide victims between 2007 and 2012 were young people aged 18 to 24. In 2013, Panama had an estimated 7’500 young people belonging to 355 gangs. This is an urban phenomenon, which is increasingly spreading amongst communities.
According to the study published in 2012 by the International Labour Organisation the phenomenon of underage labour has also been increasing in recent years.
Young people in need of international protection are not the only ones confronted with the risks of fragile environments, local youth are as well. The increase in violence, gangs, drugs or bullying affects everyone. However, young refugees do face additional threats such as discrimination, xenophobia, and difficulties in access to education or employment, etc. This creates strong barriers to integration within their host communities.
Young people facing these situations lack proper psychosocial support to overcome the traumas of the events having generated the forced displacement.
3. How RET Protects Them
Since 2009, RET International has been working in Panama for the socio-economic integration of adolescents and youth and their families who are in need of international protection or with a refugee status. We facilitate their participation and create activities, which develop the necessary capacities to help them integrate their host communities and improve their quality of life.
RET has actively participated in the development of the participative diagnostic conducted by UNHCR in 2014, which has highlighted “the lack of understanding of the condition of refugees in public and private institutions and the community in general.” This lack of understanding puts the refugee community in danger of not enjoying their full rights and limits their access to basic services.
The regularisation of their documents and in particular those needed to access the education system is an important barrier. RET, therefore, acts as a facilitator for the legalization of documents needed from Colombia. RET along with UNHCR, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Ministry of Education promotes a Ministerial Decree of Co-validation of Titles and Credits Obtained Abroad, which seeks to solve this issue through standardised testing.
RET equally works hand in hand with the public, private and social institutions in the country to raise awareness and propose concrete responses to the needs of the population. This is done so they may have access to their basic rights, improve their integration and become positive actors of society.
In addition, we work to prevent and eradicate under-aged labour in coordination with government entities such as the Ministry of Labour, the Office of the First Lady, the Ministry of Education, the National Secretariat of Children, Adolescents and Family. We also work in the field of disaster risk management hand in hand with UNICEF, the Ministry of Education and the National Secretariat of Children, Adolescents and Family and the Panamanian Institute of Special Abilities in order to strengthen inclusive and safe education during emergencies.