Nicaraguan Refugees in Costa Rica Suffer in Health Crisis

Many refugees have been left begging for donations to pay their rent. Some of them are only eating one meal a day. Photo: EFE

Over three quarters of the refugees and asylum seekers are experiencing hunger, the UNHCR reports. Some 7% have returned to Nicaragua, despite the risks.

By Cindy Regidor  (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – The political and economic crisis in Nicaragua forced them to leave their country. That crisis was a product of the state repression following the civic rebellion of April 2018 in Nicaragua. Now, there’s also a health crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The latter has caused a critical situation for the over 81 thousand Nicaraguan refugees and asylum seekers in Costa Rica. This dilemma may force them to return, despite the risks to those who originally fled.

Over three thousand requests for asylum in Costa Rica have been retracted, most of them from Nicaraguans. Still, the great majority still aren’t planning to return, fearing threats and violence from the Ortega-Murillo government.

These are the results of the most recent humanitarian evaluation conducted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The study revealed that 14% of the Nicaraguan refugees in Costa Rica eat one or fewer meals a day. Another 63% eat only twice a day. Their critical situation stems from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Internal displacement of the Nicaraguan refugees

Adding to the hunger is the risk of falling into homelessness. Twenty percent didn’t know where they would live next month, since they won’t have the money for rent. In addition, the study revealed that wages are the main source of income for only 59% of the families. Previous to the pandemic, the figure for this was close to 93%.

Tanya Amador directs the humanitarian organization Corner of Love. This NGO has two centers where they help the refugee population in Costa Rica. She noted that because of the pandemic, part of the Nicaraguan refugees abandoned San Jose for the northern border towns. Unable to pay rent, they leave the capital and look for farm work in the northern zone. Some of them also hope to cross back into Nicaragua at some point, said Amador. She elaborated on their situation in an interview on the internet news program Esta Semana.

“Many of them have been left homeless. They’re in the street, begging for donations to pay rent. I’d say that many of them only eat once a day. The study speaks of two meals a day, but there are many refugees who can’t even manage that,” she added.

Corner of Love also assists Cuban migrants

Amador has also noted a change in the profile of those seeking aid. During 2018 and 2019, those who approached Corner of Love tended to be mostly single men. Today, entire families come to their centers in the capital and in the border area of La Cruz de Guanacaste.

Because of their proximity to the official border station at Penas Blancas, Corner of Love also serves stranded foreigners of other nationalities. For example, there was a group of nearly 300 Cubans who arrived in the area weeks ago. The group was attempting to cross through Nicaragua in transit towards the United States. Approximately 190 of them are still camped in the area.

Tania Amador explained that her group mostly offers in-kind help, via the “dailies”. These are packages that include rice, beans, sugar, cooking oil, toilet paper and other personal hygiene items. “Many ask for shoes or clothes, and above all small cash donations to payd rent on their rooms,” Amador added. In order to subsist and cover other necessities, they also resort to peddling candies, drinks or fruit. 

The UN agency for refugees indicated that 62% of the Nicaraguan refugees have received some aid. The aid has come from civil society, UN organizations, or even food aid from the Costa Rican government.

No health insurance

Refugees and asylum seekers infected with COVID-19 get medical assistance from the Costa Rican public health system. However, they’re unprotected if they have other health problems. Fifty-three percent of the heads of household don’t have any health insurance.

Fortunately, given the risks of COVID-19, some 90% do have access to drinking water and 95% declared that they washed their hands regularly with soap and water.

However, many of the refugees in San Jose live in crowded conditions that increase their vulnerability to the virus. “People try to take care of themselves the best they can. I’ve spoken with many of them who haven’t been out of the house in months. They’re taking the measures that are possible,” stated Tanya Amador.

Return to Nicaragua despite the risks

According to the UNHCR, 7% of families noted at least one relative who has returned to Nicaragua due to the pandemic. Another 21% reported that someone in their family was thinking of returning due to the lack of food and income.

The remaining 73% aren’t considering a return to Nicaragua. Most of them attribute this to fear of threats or violence from the government or its allied groups. Another reason for the refugees’ reluctance to return home is the lack of adequate health services in Nicaragua.

Only 11% reported that some Nicaraguan relative tried to join them in Costa Rica.  Since Costa Rica closed its borders in March, some 90% of those who attempted this failed. When they closed their borders, the Costa Rican government also ordered a strong police presence to avoid illegal crossings.

Another border humanitarian crisis is possible

Meanwhile, along the border, Tanya Amador fears a return to the humanitarian crisis that occurred at the end of July and beginning of August. At that time, some 500 Nicaraguans, most of them economic migrants, but also some refugees, found themselves trapped at the border. They couldn’t enter Nicaragua because the Ortega government demanded they present a negative COVID-19 test.

The announcement was sudden, and the Nicas didn’t have the money for the test. The Nicaraguan government refused to offer them for free or for a fee. Thus trapped, the refugees remained in limbo for nearly 15 days. They crowded together under plastic tarps, exposed to the sun and rain, without access to basic services, and without food.

Organizations like Corner of Love came to the border to provide them with food and water. Other organizations, such as the Arias Foundation, collected money and coordinated the logistics of offering the COVID-19 tests. In this way, the Nicaraguans were eventually able to return to their country.

Amador’s organization maintains a list of people requesting help to pay for their COVID-19 exam so they can return to Nicaragua. “I’m very scared that the situation could repeat itself. I hope that doesn’t happen.  However, some come all the way here [to Penas Blancas] with the hope of getting aid once they arrive. It’s better that they prepare and investigate how to get help with the COVID test,” she stated

Nicaraguan government violates the rights of citizens who wish to return

On September 3rd, the Nunca Mas [“Never Again”] Nicaraguan Human Rights Collective presented a report. The document detailed the human rights situation of Nicaraguans who are suffering many obstacles to their return.

In addition to the humanitarian crisis at Penas Blancas, there’ve been similar cases of Nicaraguans trying to return from Panama, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and the Caribbean countries. All of them have been hindered from returning to their country by the requirements the Ortega government has imposed.

This report stressed “the utilization of the Nicaraguan Army to impede Nicaraguans from crossing the border”. “Those who attempted an irregular crossing, due to the authorities’ refusal to grant passage, complained that Nicaraguan soldiers violently forced them to return to Costa Rica.”

“By establishing legislative and administrative dispositions, including COVID-19 tests for their own citizens, the Nicaraguan State is violating the right of “every person…to leave any country, including their own, and to return home.” This right is contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Nicaraguan Constitution,” the report concluded.    

102,000 Nicaraguan asylum seekers all over the world

The critical situation of these refugees is repeated in other countries where Nicaraguans have sought refuge. “Elsewhere in the region, the refugees also report losing their ability to earn a living, evictions and hunger. Other countries include Panama, Guatemala and Mexico,” the UNHCR reported. Their registries indicate that the crisis in Nicaragua led over 102,000 people to seek protection outside the country.

The massive exodus of Nicaraguans began in 2018 when the Ortega-Murillo regime brutally suppressed the citizens’ civic protests. The protests demanded that the regime leave power. The repression was carried out by the police in coordination with civilians armed with weapons of war. The human rights violations were classed by human rights organizations as “Crimes against Humanity”. The repression left more than 300 dead, thousands wounded, hundreds of political prisoners and tens of thousands in exile.

Read more about the situation in Nicaragua here.