The United Nations refugee agency today protested the deportation of Colombian refugees by Panamanian authorities, stressing that asylum seekers should not be forced to return to their country of origin.
On Monday, 109 Colombians were forced to leave the remote area of Alto Tiura in El Darien province of Panama, where some had sought refuge as early as December 2001 to escape the conflict in their own country, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.
Deportees interviewed by UNHCR two days ago said the Panamanian National Guard told them they were being moved to a safer location, but when some refused to move they were forced onto helicopters, which took them to the Colombian side of the border. They also claimed that the Panamanian authorities forced them to sign a document declaring that their return home was voluntary.
The returnees, temporarily housed at a school on Colombia's Caribbean coast, include mothers who were forced to leave their Panama-born children behind and also 63 children. UNHCR is working with the Colombian Government to provide them with food and basic emergency assistance.
The agency has cautioned that the deportation would have serious implications for the protection of people fleeing the Colombian conflict. It urged Panama to co-ordinate efforts to protect and assist the displaced in the border areas of the two countries.
There are fears that Monday's deportation may be repeated in other remote areas of the Darien region of Panama, UNHCR said, warning that this would go against its agreements with the governments of Panama and Colombia that require UNHCR to be informed of any initiatives to repatriate refugees.
These initiatives would also have to be carried out in an open manner and according to the basic principles of voluntarism, safety and dignity, reiterated UNHCR. The agency is monitoring the situation closely, clarifying it with authorities from both countries and insisting that all concerned must observe the basic norms of international refugee law.
Panama hosts more than 1,500 registered refugees and persons under a special humanitarian protection status, many of them in the Darien region. The majority of them are Colombian citizens.