IOM, Panamá Prepare COVID-19 Response for 2,500 Migrants Stranded at Borders

Panamá City—Panamá not only links two continents—North and South America—it also connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific, making the small country a key link in world migration going back centuries.  

Presently, Panamá receives annually close to 25,000 so called “extra continental” migrants, almost all bound for the U.S.-Mexico border. That’s about 2,000 migrants per month—men, women and children entering mostly via the dense, Darién Gap wilderness that serves as the border between Panamá and Colombia. 

In the current COVID-19 emergency, these long-distance migrants entering Panamá via the Darién Gap are among the world’s most vulnerable travelers. Many have already been on the move for months, journeying from as far away as Africa and Asia. They also must survive days of difficult marching along treacherous jungle trails plagued by malarial swamps and poisonous snakes.  

Many die each year en route. Those who don’t are often arrive in a weakened state, having gone without adequate food or medical attention and therefore are susceptible to any contagion. 

This month (9 April), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) began working with Panamá to try to mitigate the threats these migrants face, as well as the overall risks to public safety posed by the pandemic. 

IOM began by providing Panamá’s National Border Service (SENAFRONT) and its Ministry of Health (MINSA) with hygiene and cleaning kits, as well as face masks and food to complement the Panamanian government’s efforts to include in their actions to protect against the COVID-19 pandemic the extra-regional migrants transiting through. 

“Migrants and refugees are among the populations in conditions of greatest risk and vulnerability, and therefore we should not leave them out of the strategies to respond to this crisis, since protecting their rights and dignity means responding to the humanitarian needs of all,” said Santiago Paz, IOM Chief of Mission in Panamá. 

During 2019, thousands crossed in from Colombia, with Cuba, Haiti, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola being the most represented in this migration flow. Many expected to be able to continue north after a short stay. 

Now, as a result of restrictive measures on international mobility—which Panamá, like many countries, has decreed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19—some 2,500 migrants are stranded at three immigration reception stations (ERM) located at Panamá’s borders with Colombia and Costa Rica.  

The Government of Panamá will offer shelter to these 2,500 people until the measures to restrict international mobility are lifted. Those currently in these shelters come mainly from Cuba, Haiti and a mix of African and Asian countries. 

“At IOM we understand that this pandemic does not differentiate between nationals and foreigners. However, the impact is not the same for everyone because it exacerbates the pre-existing gaps that, most likely, make an important difference between one population’s ability to overcome the crisis and another,” explained Santiago Paz, IOM’s chief of mission here. 

IOM, in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and through logistics management from SENAFRONT, the Panamanian border agency, have coordinated efforts to respond to the needs identified not only of refugees and migrants stationed at these immigration reception centres, but also those of the staff who support the logistical work of providing security and protection in the area. 

“Dry food, canned goods, and oil have been delivered, as well as 405 bags of food that have been prepared for groups of 5 people each,” explained IOM’s Santiago Paz. “We seek to mitigate the risk of the spread of the virus linked to the daily handling and distribution of articles. Likewise, IOM and UNHCR gave SENAFRONT masks, boxes of paper towels, gallons of soap, and bottles of alcohol.” 

IOM’s participation in this effort is being supported by The Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), the humanitarian bureau of the U.S State Department. 

For more information please contact Mayteé Zachrisson at IOM Panamá, Tel: +507 6312 5700, Email: ; or Jorge Gallo at the Regional Office for Central America, North America and the Caribbean, Tel +506 72036536, Email: