Panama Multi-Country Office
UNHCR's Office in Panama covers operations in Aruba (since 2021), Belize (since 2018), Cuba, Curaçao (since 2021), El Salvador, Guatemala (until 2019), Guyana (since 2021), Honduras (until 2019), Nicaragua, Suriname (since 2021) and Trinidad & Tobago (since 2021) .
Operation: Panama Multi-Country Office
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|2020 year-end figures|
|49,386||people benefitted from collective initiatives in 45 communities at heightened risk of forced displacement, health complications and hurricanes in Honduras|
|48,542||people assisted with shelter, information on asylum and protection services and counselling through the UNHCR-supported national protection network in Guatemala|
|11,078||refugees and migrants from the Bolivarian Republic Venezuelan helped in Panama|
|6,500||people of concern to UNHCR received hygiene supplies in El Salvador|
|600||people departed for resettlement countries, either through the Protection Transfer Arrangement or the more traditional resettlement programmes|
|2021 planning figures|
|6,000||advocacy interventions will be made on gender-based violence prevention and response|
|3,500||households will be provided with multipurpose cash assistance to meet their basic needs|
|2,000||of individuals will receive legal assistance|
|1,500||individuals will receive material and psychosocial support|
|150||government officials will be trained on asylum and international protection issues|
|50||public awareness campaigns to mitigate the impact of xenophobia|
People of Concern
Panama Multi-Country Office
Operational contextHigh levels of violence and crime continued to cause displacement in and from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras . Across the sub-region, border closures, limited access to asylum systems and loss of livelihoods linked to the pandemic saw an increasing number of refugees and asylum seekers request assistance to cover rent, food and medicine.
A record number of hurricanes worsened the already dire humanitarian situation in the subregion. Over 5 million people were impacted by tropical storms Eta and Iota, including many people who were forcibly displaced prior to the climatic emergency. The destruction in Honduras and Nicaragua, the most severely affected countries, challenged the delivery of aid while flooding and damage to infrastructure were also reported in Panama, Guatemala and Belize.
The social and political crisis in Nicaragua underway since 2018, and the unfolding crisis in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, also were behind movements of people in Central America, particularly towards Costa Rica and Panama.
To address the complexities of the situation covered by the multi/country Office, UNHCR prioritized the provision of life-saving assistance, including food, hygiene supplies, masks and other protective equipment, psychosocial support, health care, rent assistance and information on protection services, also through remote modalities when in person assistance was not possible.
In Cuba, UNHCR advocate the ratification of the 1951 Refugee Convention and provided access to international protection through mandate refugee status determination and assistance to the most vulnerable.
UNHCR bolstered up countries which are part of the Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework to address forced displacement in Central America and Mexico, or MIRPS. Technical assistance was also offered to El Salvador as the pro tempore presidency.
UNHCR partnered with regional and sub-regional organizations, including the Central American Integration System, the Organization of American States and the Central American Council of Ombudspersons, and strengthened operational response in cooperation with WHO, IOM and UNICEF.
Population trendsWith over 549,245 refugees and asylum-seekers having fled to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras by mid-2020, these countries were affected as either places of origin, transit or destination of people forcibly displaced. Also, around 318,550 people are internally displaced in El Salvador and Honduras.
The situation in Nicaragua resulted in large-scale displacement, with over 70,787 asylum-seekers and refugees worldwide by end of 2020. Despite ongoing human rights violations reported within Nicaragua, pandemic-related mobility and border restrictions decreased asylum claims from 4,000 lodged per month before the pandemic to around 30 lodged monthly in Costa Rica by the end of the year.
- 2,745 people in Panama received aid in cash and 800 people received legal assistance.
- 2,500 people in mixed movements benefitted from COVID-19 prevention and protection response services in Darien border Province (Panama).
- 48 Refugee Housing Units were donated to support the improvement of conditions in temporary border shelters in Darien (Panama).
- 140 refugees and asylum seekers in Cuba received cash to meet essential needs.
- 27 schools were improved to reduce school dropout in high risk areas in El Salvador.
- 698 cases of deported children and families with protection needs received legal and psychosocial support in El Salvador.
- 93 people of concern to UNHCR received certified vocational training in Belize.
- 1,293 IDPs and 967 returnees benefited from transitional shelter, cash assistance and psychosocial support in Honduras.
- 45 communities in Honduras benefited with remote mechanisms to identify and refer cases with protection needs.
- 71 initiatives were implemented in prioritized communities in Guatemala to peaceful coexistence and integration.
- 162 people trained, and 40 microenterprises created to enhance livelihoods opportunities in Guatemala.
Unmet needsThe Panama MCO was only 66% funded in 2020, which limited the scope of programmes in a context of increased needs due to the pandemic and natural disasters. This meant only a limited number of people at heightened vulnerability received comprehensive livelihoods and cash assistance.
Insufficient funding affected the establishment of additional safe houses for people at heightened risk for gender-based violence survivors, unaccompanied children and members of the LGBTIQ+ community in Central America. The provision of cash assistance for housing or livelihoods was insufficient. In addition, the Office could only offer reduced support to monitor borders and to strengthen State capacities to address child protection needs, including full best interest assessment/determination processes, full access to virtual education and psychosocial support.
Use of flexible funding (unearmarked or softly earmarked funding)
- In cooperation with UNICEF, UNHCR produced the Families on the Run report which highlights how threats, gang recruitment, extortion and other forms of targeted violence are driving the displacement of increasing numbers of families in and from the north of Central America: Press release and dedicated webpage.
- UNHCR delivered 750 tablets to refugee and migrant families in Panama to allow access to remote schooling amidst the pandemic. Press release and social media content on Twitter and Instagram.
Working environmentBy end-2018, there were 353,200 refugees and asylum-seekers from the North of Central America (NCA) registered worldwide; almost 20 times more than at the end of 2011. In the first semester of 2019, an additional 42,300 asylum applications of NCA nationals were reported, an 80% increase compared to same period in 2018.The crises in Nicaragua and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela have continued to put additional pressure on national asylum systems in the hosting countries. As of end-August, the total number of asylum-seekers from Nicaragua stood at over 88,000, with Costa Rica remaining the largest recipient and Panama also witnessing a sharp increase. These trends are likely to continue in 2020.
Levels of internal displacement are similarly high. According to estimates from government-led profiling studies supported by UNHCR, there are 247,000 IDPs in Honduras (2004-2018), based on an updated profiling exercise soon to be published. In El Salvador, a government-led study found that at least 71,500 IDPs (2006-2016) have been displaced as a direct result of the violence.
UNHCR’s Multi-Country Office in Panama ensures the overall coordination of the Regional Protection and Solutions Strategy for the NCA situation, supports the response to the Nicaragua situation and coordinates the implementation of the regional application of the CRRF, known regionally by its Spanish acronym MIRPS. UNHCR has national offices in Belize, El Salvador, and Guatemala, maintains a small presence in Cuba for protection activities and covers Nicaragua, where it has no operational presence but is working through field missions and an implementing partner. In 2020 UNHCR will have a full representation in Honduras.
In spite of the efforts made by States to tackle root causes, high levels of violence will most likely continue to affect all three NCA countries - El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras - in 2020, with high homicide rates, SGBV, recruitment of children by gangs and other crimes affecting a large portion of the population, and little effective protection being offered by State institutions. As a consequence, many people will continue to flee NCA countries to seek protection in other countries. While in 2019 the United States of America kept on being the primary country of destination, followed by Mexico, the current changes in the migratory and asylum policies of these countries, make it hard to predict what the displacement patterns will be in Central America in 2020. Consequently, UNHCR is increasing its border monitoring activities, ramping up its assistance capacity and strengthening its support to national asylum systems in the region.
In 2020, UNHCR will continue to reinforce its protection responses in the region, strengthening asylum systems, reception conditions and provide immediate humanitarian assistance through cash-based interventions. At the same time, livelihood activities will be further expanded in asylum countries to support local integration and peaceful coexistence with host communities.
With the recent addition of El Salvador – which became officially part of the MIRPS process in July 2019 –, Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Panama will further deepen their collaboration under MIRPS in 2020. The MIRPS fosters regional cooperation between countries of origin, transit and destination for greater responsibility sharing on prevention, protection and solutions. It also provides for an inclusive approach as it involves the participation of regional and international organizations, civil society and the private sector.
Key prioritiesIn 2020, UNHCR will focus on:
- Building strong asylum systems in destination countries;
- Strengthening mechanisms that can respond to urgent protection risks faced by IDPs and other people affected by violence in countries of origin;
- Identifying and protecting deportees with protection needs;
- Finding durable solutions for people of concern, including local integration in destination countries, resettlement, or cooperation with development actors to address root causes that will allow for voluntary return;
- Ensuring safe transit along the main migration routes by establishing protection networks and providing humanitarian assistance, with a special focus on the most vulnerable.
Funding shortfalls for the regional protection response could result in greater displacement and increased risks for people of concern who have to flee, such as exploitation, SGBV, trafficking, and forced recruitment.