Over 22,000 Nicaraguans Request Asylum in Costa Rica in 2021

Nicaraguan migrants cross into Costa Rica via unmarked entry points between the two countries. Photo: Gerall Chavez

Requests have tripled since June, and continue to rise, for a total of 22,813 asylum requests in the past 8 months of 2021.

By Katherine Estrada Tellez (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – “I know I’m here for my safety, to safeguard my life and my physical integrity, but it’s been really hard. It’s a cultural change, a change of currency, a total lifestyle change. I’m completely starting over from zero,” says Majourie Duarte, a Nicaraguan who recently went into exile in Costa Rica.

She arrived a little over two months ago to seek asylum, due to constant harassment from the Ortega regime’s police. She’s 29 and lived in Managua, where she studied Anthropology for five years and was in her fourth year of Law School.

In 2018, she abandoned her Anthropology major at Nicaragua’s National Autonomous University as a gesture of civil disobedience. She was an independently organized participant in the protests against the Ortega-Murillo regime during the April rebellion of that year.

When she began participating in the demonstrations, she was threatened by members of her local Sandinista-organized neighborhood group, known as Councils of Citizen Power (CPC). In 2019, when she joined the University Coordinator for Democracy and Justice, she began to receive more direct threats from friends who were in the police.

By that time, the harassment was more constant, and they didn’t only threaten her, but also her family. She had to leave home and stay in a series of safe houses, in order to avoid putting her family at risk. In June, she moved to a farm outside of the capital, but authorities located her there. That’s when she decided to leave for Costa Rica.

“I came here on June 19. By that time, the majority of the last 30 arrested were already locked up: Tamara [Davila], Felix [Maradiaga], Juan Sebastian [Chamorro]…  I didn’t want to be next on that list.” Marjourie was referring to the now-36 electoral prisoners, who in that past four months have lengthened the regime’s list of political prisoners that was already above 130.

Requests began skyrocketing in June

Marjourie now forms part of the 22,813 Nicaraguan asylum seekers that Costa Rica has received from January 2021 to date.

According to information offered to Confidencial by Allan Rodriguez, head of the Refugee Unit of Costa Rica’s Office of Immigration and Foreign Affairs, there’s been a considerable increase in requests since June. Immigration officials attribute this spike to the repressive events that have become generalized in Nicaragua. From January to May, there was an average of 1,300 new asylum requests from Nicaraguans monthly. In June 2021, the number rose to 4,378; since then, it has consistently grown.

From 2018 until now, the Costa Rican Refugee Team has logged 86,916 petitions for asylum from Nicaraguans, who make up over 80% of the total requests.

Nicaraguans requesting asylum in Costa Rica during 2021.

Carlos Huezo, who directs the organization “SOS Nicaragua Human Rights Costa Rica”, calculates that some 30% of the exiles who recently arrived in Costa Rica from Nicaragua have yet to put in their asylum requests.

Prior to 2018, Nicaraguans emigrated to Costa Rica to better their economic and work situation. Now, these numbers have been swollen by refugees of different backgrounds. Alberto Cortes, a political and geographic analyst who teaches at the University of Costa Rica, describes this migration as involving a high level of political activity, “There are more professionals and many university students and social leaders, plus human rights activists,” he explains.

The growth of family units that migrate together has been important during the past three years, according to the Refugee Unit. Rodriguez adds that in the past two months, they’ve also had more requests from Nicaraguan journalists.

Unemployed and without valid documents in a recovering economy

The arrival of more refugees in Costa Rica is occurring at a time when the Costa Rican economy is barely beginning to recover from the pandemic lockdowns. This makes finding work very difficult. “The pandemic worsened the possibilities of insertion in the labor market and of surviving. [The situation] is very precarious for an important part of the population that arrived after 2018,” Alberto Cortes comments.

Carlos Huezo coincides with this view, adding that a humanitarian crisis already existed before the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s only gotten worse. “As an organization, we view the situation as alarming, because we expect to have over 40,000 refugees by the end of this year,” he warns.

Another obstacle for those seeking asylum is the time it takes to receive a response from the immigration authorities. Marjourie has received her ID card, which identifies her as an asylum seeker, and is waiting for her work permit. However, the final appointment to determine her status is scheduled for 2025.

This situation limits Marjourie’s job opportunities. In order to have the studies she completed in Nicaragua accredited, she must hold confirmed refugee status. At the moment, the only credential she has is that of a bookkeeper, but she hasn’t been able to register even that, since her asylum case hasn’t been resolved.

“I’m an asylum seeker, and that status only allows me to show that I graduated from high school,” Marjourie comments sadly. Some refugees seek to make up for the lack of opportunities by launching their own initiatives, while others aspire to continuing their academic formation.

Marjourie hopes to have her work permit by the end of September, so she can begin to seek employment. Meanwhile, she’s taking acting classes and is looking for some kind of courses that allow her to grow in the neighboring country.

“I plan to study. I feel that education is a tool that lets us have a better quality of life. Since I couldn’t finish my studies in Nicaragua, it would be ideal to have more flexibility to be able to enter the universities here,” she suggests.

Nicaraguan asylum seeker Marjourie Duarte arrived in Costa Rica in June 2021. Photo: Katherine Estrada

To professor and political scientist Cortes, immigration doesn’t have to be a burden. Instead, it could be considered an opportunity for Costa Rica. “They are people with a great desire to get ahead, with capabilities and experience. From the medium and long-term perspective, migration can make an important contribution in terms of the country’s demography, economy and culture,” he believes.

In order to speed up the response process, the Refugee Unit has received help from the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. That has allowed them to broaden the hours of attention and to create mechanisms so that those seeking asylum can schedule appointments by e-mail, depending on the case, via [email protected].

 “My first appointment with immigration was scheduled for September 27, to receive my ID as an asylum seeker. Then there was a notification from immigration that I could move up the appointment, so I e-mailed them to do so,” Marjourie explains. With this document in hand, she could realize the necessary currency changes and bank transactions.

Refugee Unit director Allan Rodriguez comments that a lot of people have taken advantage of this initiative to obtain current documentation. That allows them to access services and be able to integrate into Costa Rican society.

He added that the Refugee Unit is preparing “for whatever may come,” in terms of a possible worsening of the Nicaraguan crisis after the November voting.

Organizations that support the immigrant population have manifested their concerns to the international community. “On a humanitarian level, there’s not enough funding to be able to supply this new wave with comprehensive and sustainable aid. We have to remember the 103,000 refugees already in the country, who are having a very bad time,” Carlos Huezo states.

Following three years of constant influx, with tens of thousands of Nicaraguans asking for refugee status in Costa Rica, a long-term solution is needed to facilitate the presence and stability of these asylum seekers.

Professor Cortes sees the need for a democratic transition that would allow the Nicaraguans to return to their country. If this doesn’t occur, he believes Costa Rica should consolidate the refugee status for this population and generate a mixed-economic plan for productive reactivation.

Meanwhile, the Nicaraguans in Costa Rica are planning to establish themselves there, although they won’t stop denouncing the outrages that are happening in Nicaragua. Marjourie wants to continue being a spokesperson for the human rights violations in Nicaragua. “To be able to denounce from a safer place,” what Nicaraguans within the country are experiencing, and to educate herself to contribute to Nicaragua from the neighboring country.

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times.