HIAS in Panama

Founded: 2010
Staff Size: 9
Country Director: Roberto Mera
Office Locations: Panama City


Panama is host to an estimated 2,800 refugees and 14,000 asylum seekers. More than 94,400 Venezuelans live in Panama, and the National Office for Refugees estimates there are 10,627 Venezuelan asylum seekers. In addition, Nicaraguans and Colombians are fleeing protracted conflicts in their home countries, and Salvadorians, Hondurans, and Guatemalans are seeking a safe haven from gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha and M-18. Panama also serves as a transit point for Cubans and other Caribbean, African, and Asian refugees and migrants going north in search of asylum or better opportunities in the United States and Canada. Panama and Costa Rica have signed the Controlled Movement Program to keep track of these groups during their stay in both countries, providing them shelter and ways of transportation to the border.


Since 2010, HIAS has directly assisted more than 6,000 refugee families and 12,000 asylum seekers. HIAS staff has trained more than 4,000 public officials and community members on refugee issues and international protection responses for refugees. As a result of HIAS' work, more than 700 people have accessed documentation and 2,400 families (comprised of more than 4,100 individuals) have received financial assistance to cover their urgent, basic needs.


HIAS works through an inclusive, community-based approach, paving the way for clients to become more self-sufficient and integrated in their local communities. The guiding principle of HIAS’ work is to build the capacities of communities, encouraging self-sufficiency and empowerment. HIAS also conducts outreach with underserved refugees to bring them into the system and builds capacity within key institutions and communities to recognize and appropriately respond to gaps in refugee protection.
Psychosocial Services
Many refugees in Panama suffer from severe mental health and physical consequences due to violence and torture experienced in their home countries. HIAS conducts assessments with refugee and local communities to identify their needs, resources, and ideas for community integration interventions. Following the assessments, HIAS focuses on building capacity within these resources to provide psychological first aid and emotional support, referring individuals with more acute mental health and psychosocial support needs who require more focused care to other partners for further assistance. 
Legal Services
HIAS focuses its legal protection work on three main activities: community-based protection and empowerment; individual legal information and counseling; and coordination and capacity-building to advance refugee protection. These activities allow refugees to access necessary legal and services information to understand their rights and advocate for themselves as they seek protection and durable solutions. It also ensures that the most vulnerable refugees can access individualized assistance to enjoy their legal rights, including access to refugee status; release from detention; access to the right to work, medical care and education; and access to protection (with particular emphasis on survivors of sexual and gender-based violence) from physical violence.
Livelihood Services
HIAS’ livelihoods framework–now mainly seen as economic inclusion–responds to refugees’ challenges of exercising the right to work, the lack of information, skills, and resources necessary to compete in markets, as well as the ability to accumulate productive assets in order to achieve self-reliance. In a tripartite partnership, UNHCR, HIAS, and Manpower Group (an international staffing/ human resources firm), provided trainings and empowerment sessions to refugees to help them find jobs. Also, Panama´s operation is one of the few countries that has access to Coursera, a company that partners with universities and organizations to offer courses online. HIAS also launched an internship program through an alliance with the private sector.
HIAS recognizes that women, older people, youth, people with disabilities, and people with significant illnesses often face a trade-off between their protection and their livelihoods. The HIAS Employment Support Center (ESC) delivers needed information and  promotes job opportunities for all of these populations through career services, employment referrals and skills-building workshops, vocational training, and group coaching. HIAS provides material and financial assistance for highly vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers who are overwhelmed by survival-level issues such as food security and illnesses. For the most vulnerable, basic material or cash support can stabilize households and help facilitate access to services that allow families to prioritize education and livelihoods opportunities.
Communities and Schools
HIAS works in the community and with local NGOs to promote local integration of refugees through community activities. HIAS provides a safe space where refugees and locals can work on community projects, and helps identify problems that affect the community. HIAS also visits schools to conduct awareness raising activities with students and teachers with the goal of reducing refugee discrimination in the classrooms. HIAS created a methodology called “How does it feel to be an adolescent refugee?” where students learn about refugees and migrants and then about their role as students in standing up against discrimination.

HIAS’s services are free. If someone tries to charge you for services claiming they represent HIAS, please report it at our confidential email address: ethics@hias.org. HIAS has a zero-tolerance policy on fraud and corruption. 

For any other inquiries please email us at info@hias.org.