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Cablegate: Illegal African Migration Poses Challenge to Panama

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RR RUEHWEB

DE RUEHZP #0873/01 3442017
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
R 102017Z DEC 09
FM AMEMBASSY PANAMA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 0169
INFO RHEFDHP/DIA DHP-1 WASHINGTON DC
RHEFHLC/DEPT OF HOMELAND SECURITY WASHINGTON DC
RHEHAAA/NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHINGTON DC
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC
RUEHBE/AMEMBASSY BELMOPAN 0003
RUEHBO/AMEMBASSY BOGOTA
RUEHBR/AMEMBASSY BRASILIA
RUEHGT/AMEMBASSY GUATEMALA
RUEHME/AMEMBASSY MEXICO 0036
RUEHMU/AMEMBASSY MANAGUA
RUEHSJ/AMEMBASSY SAN JOSE
RUEHSN/AMEMBASSY SAN SALVADOR
RUEHTG/AMEMBASSY TEGUCIGALPA 0034
RUEHZP/AMEMBASSY PANAMA
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHINGTON DC

C O N F I D E N T I A L PANAMA 000873

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 2019/12/10
TAGS: PREL PGOV PM SO SMIG PREF
SUBJECT: ILLEGAL AFRICAN MIGRATION POSES CHALLENGE TO PANAMA

CLASSIFIED BY: Stephenson, Ambassador; REASON: 1.4(B), (D)

Summary

1. (U) The number of illegal African migrants smuggled through
Panama has grown six-fold in 2009. Somali and other Horn of Africa
migrants are a particular concern for Panama, which has shown no
inclination to accept them as refugees, yet is struggling to find a
humane response to the increase. Concern about the issue has led
to discussions across the region, but to date, the unofficial
policy of the GOP is simply to deny asylum requests and not accept
economic migrants from Africa. As most migrants apprehended in
Panama appear to have been headed for the United States, the issue
has implications for the effort to secure our extended borders.
End Summary.

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No Easy Answers

2. (U) Reflecting an emerging Latin American trend, illegal
migration by Africans though Panama has mushroomed. In 2009,
authorities apprehended 96 illegal migrants of African origin, up
from 14 in 2008. Smugglers employ the same methods used in
transporting narcotics from Colombia, moving people into Panama in
small boats which hug the isolated shorelines of Darien province.
Throughout the year, small groups of migrants, ranging in size from
11 to 28, have been abandoned on Panama's coastlines by smugglers.
In one instance a group was deposited on the beach and told that
they were in Canada. The migrants pay somewhere between $3000 and
$10,000 to be smuggled to Latin America and onward to the United
States. According to the director of the National Office of
Refugees (ONPAR), the migrants' odyssey takes them through Brazil,
Ecuador and Colombia as they progress northward.

3. (U) 70 of the 96 African migrants apprehended in 2009 are
Somalis, raising consternation in Panama about this particular
group. The anxiety may be tangentially based on the ongoing piracy
off the Somali coast which has at times affected Panamanian flagged
ships (note: Panama is home to the world's largest ship registry).

4. (U) Partly due to its proximity to Colombia and the ongoing
insurgency there, Panamanian society is not welcoming to refugees
and migration in general. The government and press have been
largely unwilling to blur the distinction between economic migrants
and refugees, as was shown by the decision by the National Office
of Refugees in September to deny asylum to 89 migrants, including
61 from the Horn of Africa. In the same month, the Supreme Court
ruled that the continuing detention of 67 migrants, including a
large percentage of Somalis, was legal. Both decisions attracted
little to no criticism in the Panamanian press.

You Can't Go Home Again

5. (C) All 89 persons denied asylum in September remain in
detention in Panama. The director of the National Migration
Service, Maria Christina Gonzalez, told embassy officers in
December that Colombia would not accept the return of African
migrants that had crossed into Panama, characterizing the Colombian
response as "evasive". Complicating matters is the impossibility of
returning the migrants to Somalia, which is without a functioning
government able to accept them. Gonzalez said that efforts were
underway to settle the migrants in a third country. Growing concern
about the possibility of increased migration across the region led
to high-level discussions of the issue, including one between
Foreign Minister Juan Carlos Varela, his Costa Rican counterpart
Bruno Stagno, and Colombian Ambassador to Panama Gina Bendetti in
late October. Gonzalez told PolOff that there is a meeting
involving representatives from Brazil, Colombia, Panama and Costa
Rica scheduled for January 2010 to address the issue. To date,
however, Gonzalez said Panama's only policy is to deny refugee
status in the hopes that this will discourage further migration to
and through Panama.

Heading North?

6. (C) Comment. African migration to Latin America is a complex
phenomenon that is in a state of flux. Many migrants appear
willing to settle in Brazil, Argentina, or other countries willing
to accommodate them. However, the surge of Somali immigrants as
far north as Panama and Costa Rica may signal both a new source and
a new route for attempted illegal entry into the U.S. In the
context of the emerging global economy, as Panama transitions from
developing to developed nation and seeks to improve its democratic
governance it will likely face further challenges from African
migration.
STEPHENSON

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