Panama is a multiparty constitutional democracy. In May voters chose Laurentino Cortizo Cohen as president in national elections that international and domestic observers considered generally free and fair.
The country has no military forces. The Panama National Police (PNP) is principally responsible for internal law enforcement and public order, while additional security forces are responsible for border control and aero naval security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: harsh prison conditions; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including through censorship and criminal libel lawsuits; and forced child labor.
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government generally did not implement the law effectively.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The Panamanian National Office for Refugees (ONPAR) had a backlog of more than 15,000 cases and usually approved only 1 percent of asylum requests. ONPAR processed asylum applications and then referred applications to the National Commission for Refugees, an interagency committee that decides the final status of every case. The process of obtaining refugee status currently takes two to three years, during which only asylum seekers admitted into the process had the right to work. The current asylum application process can take up to one year for applicants to even be admitted into the system, which was not a guarantee of asylum approval.
The government approved and implemented the protocol for identification, referral, and attention for minors requiring international protection; however, the institutional protocol for protecting minors who migrate was pending implementation approval.
The government continued to manage camps in the Darien region to provide food, shelter, and medical assistance to migrants. At least one camp in the Darien did not have regular access to potable water and at times presented unsanitary conditions, especially when dealing with high volumes of migrants. The government reported continued migrations of persons from Cuba, Haiti, South Asia, India, and Africa.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its NGO implementing partners, thousands of persons living in the country were possibly in need of international protection. These included persons in the refugee process, persons denied refugee status, and persons who did not apply for refugee status due to lack of knowledge or fear of deportation.
Employment: Refugees recognized by authorities have the right to work, but recognized refugees complained that they faced discriminatory hiring practices. In an effort to prevent this discriminatory practice, ONPAR removed the word “refugee” from recognized refugees’ identification cards. By law individuals in the process of applying for asylum do not have the right to work; however, beginning in May those who had been formally admitted into the asylum process could request a one-year work permit that could be renewed as many times as needed.
Access to Basic Services: Education authorities sometimes denied refugees access to education and refused to issue diplomas to others if they could not present school records from their country of origin. The Ministry of Education continued to enforce the government’s 2015 decree requiring schools to accept students in the asylum process at the grade level commensurate with the applicants’ prior studies. As a result of the long wait times to be entered into the asylum system, many applicants encountered difficulties accessing basic services such as health care, financial services, and appropriate housing.
Durable Solutions: The law allows persons legally recognized as refugees or with asylum status who have lived in the country for more than three years to seek permanent residency.