The government decreased protection efforts. The government identified six trafficking victims in 2020, after screening 11 potential victims for trafficking indicators; this compared with 61 potential trafficking victims (22 confirmed trafficking victims) in 2019 and 46 potential trafficking victims in 2018. The government indicated that it screened potential victims to confirm their status as trafficking victims in a process that could take several months; victims could access shelter and other services while their status was pending. The government had not yet processed all 61 potential victims identified in 2019. Of the six identified victims in 2020, three were sex trafficking victims and one was a labor trafficking victim; authorities identified the other two individuals as victims of “slavery,” a form of exploitation which could amount to trafficking. Officials ultimately identified the five other potential victims as victims of other crimes, such as migrant smuggling or labor exploitation. Anti-trafficking officials referred these victims to the appropriate authorities for further assistance.
Officials referred all victims to the Technical Unit for Attention and Protection of Victims and Witnesses (UPAVIT), which provided legal and other assistance to victims of all crimes and physical protection to victims, witnesses, and experts. The government had guidelines for victim identification and protection, which outlined the formal procedures, internal processes, and training materials used by referring officials and UPAVIT. The National Anti-Trafficking Commission supplied an identification form to assist officials who encountered potential trafficking victims; however, observers noted the form’s distribution was incomplete, leaving some potential victims vulnerable to misidentification. In 2020, UPAVIT provided services to 25 victims, including several victims identified in previous reporting periods. The government trained representatives from the women’s institute and the Ministry of Security on victim protection and services. Anti-trafficking officials reported significant challenges in identifying victims under the government’s pandemic-related movement restrictions, due in part to the additional limitations on victims’ freedom of movement and shifts in traffickers’ tactics to evade mandatory closures of bars and brothels. The government suggested unidentified trafficking victims may have departed Panama on pandemic-related humanitarian evacuation flights but did not report efforts to screen this population for trafficking indicators.
The government maintained the Special Fund for Victims of Trafficking in Persons mandated by the anti-trafficking law and established an office to manage trafficking funds, but the government did not allocate funding specific to the anti-trafficking commission or victim services. As a result, agencies drew from their general budgets to fund the anti-trafficking commission and the provision of food, shelter in hotels, transportation, and psychological and legal services for potential victims. Eight victims participated in hospitality sector vocational training during 2020. During the pandemic, the government coordinated biweekly or monthly deliveries of food and hygiene items to victims and their families. In 2020, UPAVIT reported $3,800 in expenditures for services to trafficking victims, a significant decrease from the $54,540 reported in 2019. The government diverted $57,000 in funds allocated to victim protection to purchase personal protective equipment for law enforcement officials during the pandemic; the government had previously coordinated with UNODC to designate these funds to establish a shelter for trafficking victims. There were no dedicated shelters for trafficking victims. As a result, authorities commonly placed victims in hotels and covered the cost of the hotel rooms. The government could also refer victims to migrant or women’s shelters run by NGOs. In 2020, the government arranged for one victim to stay in a hotel while awaiting repatriation; another victim elected to remain in the migrant shelter where officials identified her as a trafficking victim. Victims sometimes chose to return to their home countries or reside with family or friends rather than stay in hotels, potentially inhibiting victim-witness support in pending trafficking cases. The government could refer child trafficking victims to SENNIAF and its network of shelters administered by NGOs and religious organizations. However, in 2020, observers and former shelter officials alleged widespread abuse in SENNIAF facilities, including mistreatment of children with disabilities and sexual abuse. An independent investigation verified the pattern of abuse perpetrated by staff and other residents, but other allegations remained unsubstantiated, including accusations and rumors of sex trafficking associated with the agency’s shelters. Officials reported the shelter most commonly serving child trafficking victims was not implicated in the investigation. Observers reported SENNIAF’s budget was insufficient to support restructuring or other largescale efforts to reduce residents’ risk of suffering abuse, which heightened their vulnerability to trafficking.
Foreign national victims were eligible for short-term humanitarian visas, temporary residency permits extendable up to six years, and work permits. The anti-trafficking commission provided legal assistance to victims seeking no-cost residency or work permits. Many administrative offices associated with the issuance of visas and permits closed during the pandemic; however, the anti-trafficking commission ensured victims could apply for and receive these documents throughout the year. During the reporting period, the government issued 17 provisional humanitarian visas and 11 work permits to trafficking victims, compared with 20 visas and nine work permits in 2019. Officials also renewed work permits for two additional victims but did not report issuing any permanent residency permits to trafficking victims in 2020, compared with 13 in 2019. The government provided 90-day temporary visas to three victims awaiting identity documents. The government helped to repatriate one Costa Rican victim exploited in Panama; an international organization funded the repatriation of one Panamanian victim exploited in trafficking abroad. The government made available specialized interview rooms to allow victims to provide testimony privately to minimize the risk of re-traumatization and allowed prosecutors to request hearings be closed to the public, but it did not report using either provision in 2020. The government seized assets derived from human trafficking activities and allocated the proceeds to services for trafficking victims. The law allowed victims to request restitution through a complaint or civil suit; lawyers from the anti-trafficking commission were available to assist victims seeking restitution. Eight trafficking victims filed for restitution in criminal cases. In one instance, the courts ordered a convicted trafficker to pay $2,000 in restitution to the child victim. The remaining seven victims’ requests awaited final rulings at the end of the reporting period. Sixteen labor trafficking victims claimed compensation from their traffickers through a separate administrative process.