Social Crisis in Panama City

"Fire, screams, confusion and violence. This has added more pain to almost 350 people in the area of Curundú, in the city of Panama.", they tell us from the Central America and Caribbean JRS office, in relation to the last fire on May 21.

"This seems to be the second intended fire in Curundú, this year. This first took place on March 21. On that occasion, the fire was bigger, affecting 528 people and destroying 137 homes. Half of the affected were minors and three died. During the last four years, 7.1% of Curundú´s total population (19.019 inhabitants) has been affected by the fire.

Soirées Abrego, member of the JRS team in Panama who works in the area, reports that these fires are the result of the fighting between the youth bands who want to control the area. "Some witnesses say that before the fire, shooting took place. The population expects more fires" she added.

While the authorities investigated, the inhabitants of the area (displaced by the Colombian conflict, afro descendants, citizens from Panama and members of the Emberá, Wounaan and Kunas native populations) suffer the lack of efficient solutions to this situation. "Life conditions in this area are very precarious; there is an extreme overpopulation and high levels of poverty".

The origins of the majority of Curundu´s population come from the times of the construction of the Panama Canal at the beginning of the XX century. According to the local JRS, this construction implied the hiring by the US of a great quantity of workers from different parts of the world that demanded a great deal of housing. The builders of the Canal started to build a series of barracks which over the time have become marginal areas especially vulnerable to social phenomenon. "We are talking about a cord of poverty that stretches through Calidonia, Santa Ana, El Chorrillo and Curundú; cords that remind us of the Colombian communes or the Brazilian favelas" according to members of the Reflection, Investigation and Communication team (ERIC) of the María Reina Parish in Curundú.


Entreculturas support to Curundú refugees

Since the end of 1996, there is a new massive Colombian migration, which enters the border fleeing war and insecurity in their country. In 2006, only in the Province of Darién, bordering Colombia, there were approximately 2.000 persons, who could be considered refugees according to ACNUR and the Panama National Office for Refugees in 2006.

The opening of borders because of globalization has also enabled thousands of Colombian families with scarce resources to regard Panama as an attractive place to live in. These two factors have made Panama change from a country of transit to a country receiving immigration.

However, the Panama legal migrant framework is very restrictive both for migrants as for refugees in the country. The status given to Colombians who ask "official protection" is that of  "temporary protected humanitarians". This condition, far from ensuring them protection, places them in a situation of total legal insecurity".

Because of the above, the situation of refugees and migrants in Panama is increasingly difficult; there rights are violated, there is labour exploitation and in many cases, the migrant and refugee women are exposed to sexual violence. This situation, together with a proposal of a n even more restrictive  new legislation, places these people in a highly vulnerable and marginal situation.

In the light of these events, Entreculturas has just begun a Project of Accompanying Refugees and Migrants together with its local partner, JRS Panama, which seeks to improve conditions by family follow up, humanitarian aid with food, lodging and health aid and income generating policies by giving loans in order to enable them to start their own projects.

Through the Social Pastoral of the María Reina Parish, the JRS Panama tries to offer attention to Curundú families and to the rest of the residents in the area, with impact in training on Human Rights, in the investigation on the migrant population and helping the non documented people with their legal procedures.

Recently, they published a report with the following considerations:

"To tackle the problem of the fires from the perspective that only the war between the youth bands is the cause, would be to ignore the central problem, that is to say that there is no development vision for these marginal areas and therefore the palliative measures do not enable the real growth if the inhabitants. It is no use giving new houses to the people if we don't work with them on family values and peaceful living. It is no use giving stronger sentences to delinquents if we don't work with the youth who face violent family situations, violence from the State which does not offer them real job opportunities and violence in the media who are "deforming" the youth instead of forming them.

What happened in Curundú and neighbouring areas, is no accident, it is the consequence of a social exclusion process which stems from a development vision which places the buildings, tourist centres, exclusive residential areas and luxury commercial centres, before the individual. Urban development has forgotten that development should be for all, with equity, but what can we say of one of the most unequal countries in the world".