Panama´s Darien Province, which borders with Colombia and is characterized by a large inhospitable jungle (266 km), is a primary entry point for irregular migrants transiting to North America. Darien Province, where diverse indigenous ethnic communities reside, has a few security check points along the Colombian border and several informal paths utilized by migrants to enter Panama. Migrants, including men, women (some of them pregnant) and children, spend days and even weeks crossing the jungle, while being exposed to insect bites, dangerous river crossings and hunger until they reach the security check points in Panama. The arduous conditions of the jungle that migrants are exposed to along their trek increase their situation of vulnerability; By the time they arrive to the Panamanian check points they are often in need of immediate primary health assistance, water, food, clothes, shoes, hygiene material, shelter and communication support (as many of the migrants do not speak Spanish). It is also important to note that Darien is extremely humid and reaches high temperatures and is infested with mosquitos and Dengue. Panama´s National Border Service (Servicio Nacional de Fronteras in Spanish) provides shelter for migrants in vulnerable situations; this became challenging when suddenly the number of migrants increased significantly and became stranded there. Panama experienced migration crisis situations with humanitarian implications in 2015 when 5,000 irregular Cuban migrants became stranded in Darien, and again in 2016 when 4,000 irregular extra-regional migrants became stranded. The influx of irregular migrants oscillates and is unpredictable; hundreds of migrants may suddenly arrive within a day with an increasing number of pregnant women and children of different nationalities that are in transit, and they may become stranded for weeks or even months if the next country closes or limits the entry of migrants. The humanitarian needs of migrants in transit or those who are stranded are evident, as they require immediate primary health assistance, NFI items (hygiene material, clothes, shoes, mosquito nets) food, water and adequate shelter.
Three inter-agency (OCHA, IOM, UNHCR, UNICEF, WHO, NRC, UN resident coordinator and others) field visits were conducted to Darien Province in the first quarter of 2018 with the purpose of assessing the situation of migrants. The main findings were the following: the average number of migrants that are in transit through Darien per day is about 300, including migrants in vulnerable situations, such as pregnant women, children, infants and elderly persons that require special attention, and many of the migrants are victims of robbery, extortion, sexual violence, physical aggression, etc. along their journey, particularly as they cross Colombia. Upon arrival to the Darien Province, they are registered by an immigration officer and after that they have to wait for a security check with the National Border Service, which takes from three days to up to two to three months in certain cases. The shelter provided by the government is in visibly poor condition, and often has outbreaks of contagious diseases that can affect host communities. Moreover, there were gaps in the provision of primary health assistance (limited only to vaccinations); there are no medicines or medical attention for vulnerable persons, and there is a lack of food (many of the migrants arrive without money to the border because they were victims of robbery and also cannot contact their relatives to receive the transfer money), and other basic necessity items such as hygiene items, clothes, shoes, mosquito nets, first aid items, mattresses, adequate toilets and showers. Stranded migrants have an impact on the already over-stretched services of available in the host communities, thus provoking some negative reactions against migrants in transit or those who are stranded.
Presently there is only one shelter, which is in poor condition (a warehouse infrastructure-the roof is made of zinc material which makes the place too hot and difficult to stay in). Its capacity is for less than 100 individuals, but in fact approximately 150 migrants from different nationalities (Africa, Asia, South America and the Caribbean) are being sheltered there. The shelter does not have enough mattresses, nor water or toilets; thus, the migrants use the river to get water for drinking and for hygienic needs, including as a toilet. This increases the risk of contamination and could result in a cholera epidemic. Many migrants are suffering from skin infections (e.g. scabies which is contagious), however there are no medical treatments available for them. The poor conditions of the shelter and the lack of adequate services also leads to xenophobia incidents. IOM intends to respond to the above humanitarian situation of the irregular migrants by supporting the Government of Panama in upgrading the conditions of the shelter, mitigating the suffering of the vulnerable migrants, and reducing the xenophobia tensions in the border communities. IOM proposes to focus the response in the following components: upgrading conditions of the shelters, increasing the supply of NFIs, and raising awareness in host communities about the push and pull factors of migration, the risks associated with irregular migration, and migrants´ rights. IOM’s comparative advantage is the capacity to lead the Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM) sector and UNITE in Panama that bring the issues of vulnerable migrants to high level mechanisms, such as REDLAC chaired by OCHA, and the UN Resident Coordinator, who raise the issues with high level national counterparts. Also, IOM updated the CCCM guidelines for flow migration situations, which is in the last stage of validation by the humanitarian actors and the government stakeholders involved in the migration and humanitarian issues.
Note: the projects below are part of the IOM’s Migration Crisis Operational Framework and country strategy to address migration issues and initiate development-principled programming to establish the foundations for longer-term recovery to complement its humanitarian programmes.