July 2016 - Panama
In October 2015, a new Executive Decree in the Republic of Panama opened the possibility for refugee and asylum-seeking children and youth to enter formal education, even if they do not have the necessary documentation. Through a proficiency test, which places them in the corresponding grade, students are able to access school and thus enjoy their fundamental right to education.
This Executive Decree includes special measures in Chapter II, referred to as “Access of Refugees to Education”, which allow refugee or asylum-seeking children and adolescents to integrate the educational system, even if they cannot provide all the official documentation. The specificity of their condition is recognised and the continuity of their education is facilitated, despite the hurdle of being unable to carry out procedures in their countries of origin, due to the dire circumstances that forced them to leave in the first place
This administrative bridge is the result of a process started three years ago by the Ministry of Education in Panama (MEDUCA). It included the review of existing legislation and the recognition of its failure to provide an effective response to the needs identified by the Regional Directorates of Education responsible for the validation process according to the jurisdiction of each student.
RET International played a central role in the process of recognising the specific needs of refugee and asylum-seeking children and adolescents. During these three years, RET, along with other international organisations working with refugees in Panama (such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Norwegian Refugee Council), conducted work on awareness-raising, technical assistance, support and monitoring of the process of revising the decree.
Under the cooperation agreement signed between the two bodies, RET International has worked with a total of 758 officials and teachers of MEDUCA through awareness-raising workshops and trainings on improving the integration of displaced children and adolescents in schools.
Why This Is So Important
Access to education by refugee and asylum-seeking children and adolescents has always faced many obstacles. In addition to a lack of information about what it means to be a “Person in Need of International Protection”, the fact that a set of documents and certifications from the country of origin were mandatory to register in local schools was a huge obstacle. For well-founded fears for their lives and physical integrity, young people and their families had fled their countries leaving behind their lives without time to prepare. Gathering official documents is most of the time not the priority when running for your life.
This entailed the lack of access to education for refugee children and adolescents who were not entitled to a definitive validation of their studies or a valid certification, even if they could take such courses through a temporary permit. Without this possibility to study or to have their studies recognised, the recovery processes of livelihoods and integration to rebuild their lives in the host country was limited at best.
For the refugee population in Panama the impact of signing the Decree is huge. Entry to formal education through a proficiency test dissipates the uncertainty regarding temporary access and prevents the denial of access to education for those not holding the required documents. It also significantly shortens the response times for the recognition of studies undertaken abroad. Ensuring access to education and minimising the processing time gives families a lot more confidence in the process of integration into their host communities.
The signing of this decree has already echoed at the regional level and has been applauded by other neighbouring countries which recognise an innovation in the process. “In the very special case of this issue we hope that Panama, spearheading this cause and directly addressing this issue, knows the success that we all desire,” emphasized the Director General of Education in Panama, Mario Rodriguez.
Excellent News, But There Is Still Much to Do
Steps for the full implementation of the Decree continue to be taken. Following the establishment of the National Commission on Recognition and Revalidation, chaired by the Director General of Education, the process of drafting the Procedures Manual has begun to further develop the articles of Executive Decree 31. It is also necessary to continue raising awareness in the Regional Offices of Education, which have already formed the Regional Commissions of Recognition and Revalidation throughout the Panamanian national territory.
In this sense, referring to the process of drafting the Procedures Manual, the Director General of Education says that “it is not the operative part which limits us in solving such an important problem, as it is explicitly discussed in chapter II of the decree that has just been reformed”.
MEDUCA highly values the strategic partnership with organisations such as RET International: “We must always begin talking about these important issues on human rights, by touching on the need to access all assistance possible, especially from international organisations that offer us that opportunity”. Thanks to the momentum generated by the signing of the Collaboration Agreement between MEDUCA and RET in Panama, the bonds of collaboration will be further strengthened for the development of joint actions that benefit the integration of refugee families.