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Cablegate: Panama Refugee News: Gop Cooperates, Commission

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 PANAMA 002997

SIPDIS


SENSITIVE


DEPARTMENT FOR PRM/IRIS/BARONE AND WHA/CEN/PIERCE
BOGOTA FOR COLLEEN HOEY


E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREF PHUM PGOV CO PM LABOR HUMAN RIGHTSPOLMIL
SUBJECT: PANAMA REFUGEE NEWS: GOP COOPERATES, COMMISSION
ACTIVE


REF: PANAMA 813


-------
SUMMARY
-------


1. (SBU) Since the United Nations High Commission for
Refugees (UNHCR) established a permanent office in Panama in
April (reftel), the GOP has cooperated increasingly with the
UNHCR and other NGOs to assist the approximately 821
displaced Colombians in the Darien border area. Under the
Torrijos administration, the Panamanian Refugee Commission
has done an about face - convening frequently to diligently
deliberate on its 75-case backlog. The UNHCR expects the
Refugee Commission's outstanding cooperation to decline as
the typical refugee in Panama changes from poor
border-crosser to middle class plane passenger and the
Commission is flooded with applications.


--------------------------------
GOP ASSISTS DISPLACED COLOMBIANS
--------------------------------


2. (SBU) In the last six months of the Moscoso
administration, the GOP improved cooperation with the UNHCR
and other NGOs in providing services to the approximately 821
displaced Colombians in the Darien border area. The GOP
placed a member of the GOP refugee agency (ONPAR) in Jaque on
Panama's Pacific coast and in El Tuira in central Darien.
While still reluctant to classify them as refugees, the GOP
worked with the government of Colombia and the UNHCR on steps
to regularize the status of the displaced Colombians.


3. (SBU) Under the Torrijos administration, GOP assistance
and cooperation with NGOs consolidated. In November, the
UNHCR helped marry 21 mixed Panamanian/Colombian couples in
the Darien, a step in qualifying for a visa. For the first
time, the GOP also helped register children born to displaced
Colombians.


-----------------------
NEW TREND: ENTRY BY AIR
-----------------------


4. (SBU) According to Panama UNHCR Representative Gonzalo
Vargas Llosa, the face of refugees in Panama changed over the
past year. As the security situation along the Colombian
border improved, poor, rural, indigenous Colombians no longer
cross into Panama to flee violence. Instead, small-scale
Colombian entrepreneurs and plantation owners flee to Panama
by air, generally after refusing to pay the "vacunas"
(payoffs) demanded by insurgents. These Colombians have no
problem showing Panamanian immigration the $500 required in
order to enter Panama.


----------------------------------------
REFUGEE COMMISSION: DRAMATIC IMPROVEMENT
----------------------------------------


5. (SBU) Under the Torrijos administration, the GOP's
adjudicator of permanent refugee cases, the Refugee
Commission, dramatically improved. After receiving training
from the UNHCR, the Commission met for a day and a half in
November and reviewed 25 cases, approving 12 and deferring 5
(which the UNHCR also expects to be approved). Because of
derivative benefits for family members, at least 50 people
will gain legal status through the November meeting.
Although not required by law, the Commission is scheduled to
meet again in December to reduce the remaining backlog of 50
refugee cases.


6. (SBU) UNHCR Representative Vargas Llosa was especially
impressed with the careful attention Vice Minister of MOGJ
Olga Golcher gave to presiding over the Refugee Commission,
noting that her performance was "like night and day" compared
with Vice Minister Perez under the Moscoso administration.
Despite a decree requiring the Commission to meet every three
months, under the Moscoso administration the Commission met
only once during its last 18 months in office, reviewing ten
cases and approving only two.


-------
COMMENT
-------


7. (SBU) The Refugee Commission's expeditious and
successful resolution of refugee cases is not sustainable.
The current 50% approval rate is on the high-end globally.
Many new-trend middle class Colombian refugees are likely to
file petitions in response to the Commission's favorable
rulings. The UNHCR expects the Commission's record to
decline as the Torrijos administration becomes wary of
placing its imprimatur on large numbers of Colombian
applicants and their families. Panamanians are sensitive to
the large numbers of recent Colombian immigrants working
illegally in Panama.


WATT

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