Graciela Isabel Mauad Ponce took over as head of Panama’s National Secretariat for Children, Adolescents, and the Family (SENNIAF) in May 2021. Since then, one of her tasks has been to attend to the situation of migrant children and adolescents who cross the thick Darién jungle on the border between Colombia and Panama.
Director Mauad spoke with Diálogo about the situation of migrant minors and the institutional help to face it.
Diálogo: Children represent one in five migrants who walk through the Darién jungle between Colombia and Panama. What is SENNIAF’s role in this situation?
Graciela Isabel Mauad Ponce, director of Panama’s National Secretariat for Children, Adolescents, and the Family: We are the specialized administrative protection agency for international migrant children. We supervise and monitor protection centers for separated or unaccompanied children since 2021. In Panama there are 52 protection centers and one of them is in the Metetí subdivision, in the province of Darién. In 2022 we created the Unit for Attention to Migrant, Stateless, and Refugee Children with highly trained professionals in the area of refuge, migration, and comprehensive child protection. From there we have processed all kinds of cases of absence and presumption of death to register the death of parents, applications for humanitarian visas, refugee applications, protection measures, and any necessary action to meet the rights of children and adolescents. This unit has allowed us to make significant progress at the institutional level on the issue of comprehensive protection of international migrant children and we are very pleased when we can make these assisted returns with guarantees. This year we have had at least three where children have been reunited with a viable family alternative.
I have been in the community of Bajo Chiquito, in the migrant reception stations, and of course, it is a mixture of many factors and emotions that converge in the issue of migration. We must recognize that families have the right to migrate. However, from the perspective of children and adolescents, many times they are not the ones who make the decision, but they have to follow their parents, and in the vast majority, it is not easy for them to leave behind their friends, their family, their school, their friends, and their known situation. The migration factor is a challenge, but we work in an innovative and responsible way to be able to guarantee these children their rights.
Diálogo: What are SENNIAF’s challenges in protecting the migrant child population?
Director Mauad: One of the main challenges is to have alternative care other than institutionalization for children who require protection measures. International migrant children, in the case that the kinship link is not proven, have to be placed under protective measures. However, we would like to broaden the impact of the foster care program so that foster families can receive the children on a transitory basis while their process is being resolved, but so that they can grow up in or be in that family versus the institutional context.
Diálogo: The number of children and adolescents who cross the dangerous Darién jungle on foot has reached historic numbers. What is the concern in this regard?
Director Mauad: I think it’s important to begin with the statistics that we handle at SENNIAF. In 2021, we tended to 173 unaccompanied children and adolescents, separated due to especially difficult circumstances, or in need of international protection. In 2022, we tended to 422 and so far this year until July we have 175. One of the biggest concerns with this migratory flow are the cases of statelessness, that is, those children who although are traveling with people who claim to be their parents, do not have birth registration and have no nationality, therefore their right to identity and those rights related to it are harmed. In 2022 we had five cases of statelessness.
Diálogo: How difficult is it to reunite children and adolescents who arrive alone from the Darién Gap?
Director Mauad: We work through Panama’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the ministries of Foreign Affairs of the children’s countries of origin so that they can carry out investigations into family alternatives; and if in the country of origin there is no family alternative, then it is up to the country to provide protection to its nationals in accordance with its internal mechanisms.
Diálogo: How does SENNIAF coordinate actions with other state agencies to attend to the child population arriving through the Darién?
Director Mauad: In the province of Darién we have a protection roundtable, which is a coordinated effort with other state institutions. There is a road map or attention for children, adolescents, separated and unaccompanied migrants, which involves the National Migration Service where they identify all migrants, from there they go to the National Border Service for the temporary migratory reception station; from there to the Health Center where the Ministry of Health intervenes to examine the health of the child, the corresponding evaluation, and later the courts of Children and Adolescents intervene. We work continuously in the province of Darién with a team of lawyers, psychologists, and social workers who make this approach. Other entities that complement the work of the protection roundtable are, for example, the National Secretariat for Disability, the Electoral Tribunal, the Ombudsman’s Office, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and any other institution that may be necessary to provide care to this population.
Diálogo: Panama has a Protocol for the Identification, Referral, and Attention of Children and Adolescents seeking refugee status. Are there any cases of this nature in relation to the child population that crosses the Darién jungle?
Director Mauad: Currently in SENNIAF we have the case of a girl who entered through the Darién National Park, who was traveling with her biological mother, but she died, and we determined the need for international protection for the girl. The refugee protocol was applied, and the minor was declared a refugee and SENNIAF assumed the legal representation of the process, as well as the follow-up measures of the case. We also provide this service to families and children who require the implementation of the humanitarian visa process for medical issues.