Year of the Exodus: 328,000 Nicaraguans Left in 2022

Between 2018 and 2022, 604,485 Nicaraguans have left the country: 328,443 during 2022, mainly to the United States and Costa Rica, researcher Manuel Orozco estimates.

By Cindy Regidor (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – The main and most visible symptom of the latent socio-political and human rights crisis in Nicaragua, during 2022, was the massive migration that, for a second consecutive year, set a record figure in contemporary history.

In 2021 and 2022 there has been an unprecedented exodus. In January and November 2022, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported 181,566 “encounters” or apprehensions of Nicaraguan migrants at the US border. In Costa Rica, between January and November 2022, immigration authorities counted 76,676 refugee application requests from Nicaraguans. Adding these preliminary figures of the two main destinations of Nicaraguan migration, around 258,000 people left the country.

It is, however, a total that does not fully reflect the magnitude of the phenomenon. Manuel Orozco, specialist in migration issues and researcher at the Inter-American Dialogue, offers a higher figure: 328,443 Nicaraguans forced to leave their homeland in 2022, including those who left for other destinations.

It is also a figure that exceeds the 161,269 Nicaraguans who left in 2021, which had also set a record in the Nicaraguan exodus.

Thus, between 2018 and 2022, 604,485 Nicaraguans have left the country: some 100,000, between 2018 and 2019; 14,773 in 2020—the year of the pandemic when most countries closed their borders–; 161,269, in 2021; and 328,443 in 2022.

“The truth is that people are leaving and departures have increased, and that is one of the first signs regarding human rights that things are not going well,” said Alberto Brunori, representative of the Regional Office for Central America of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), on the program Esta Noche. He spoke of the crisis that Nicaragua is going through and its continuation for almost five years, which, in addition, he described as “unsustainable.”

Emigrating despite the dangers

2022 was marked by a news agenda filled with tragedies of Nicaraguan migrants in their journey to reach the United States, the main destination of this new exodus. In November, the Border Patrol reported 34,292 arrests of Nicaraguans, that is, 12% of the total number of arrests of migrants of different nationalities and, on average, more than a thousand per day. This number also breaks a new record among the monthly numbers of Nicaraguans who have arrived on an irregular basis in the United States in recent years.

Nicaraguans come due to persecution by the Ortega regime, from the increasingly difficult economic situation, as well as Sandinista officials and militants who defected from the FSLN ranks due to internal pressures and conflicts.

Among the most recurrent news were the drowning of people attempting to cross the Rio Grande to reach US soil, cases of people who died in containers due to asphyxiation, kidnappings, murders, disappearances and accidents in Mexico.

According to monitoring by Confidencial, as of December 16, at least 51 Nicaraguan migrants died in their attempt to reach the United States in 2022. More than half from drowingin in the Rio Bravo and a quarter in traffic accidents.

However according to the Nicaraguan American Human Rights Alliance (NAHRA), between March and November 82 Nicaraguan migrants died in their attempt to reach the United States.

Among the dozens of thousands of Nicaraguans who left in 2022, there were those who were affected by US immigration policies. In early 2022, dozens were stranded in Mexico, mainly in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, due to the “Stay in Mexico” program that forced those seeking asylum in the United States to wait in Mexico until authorities had a response to their request.

A Confidencial team traveled to that city to record the stories of Nicaraguans who were disproportionately affected by that policy (60% of the returnees were Nicaraguans). During the visit, we also documented the situation of Nicaraguans who had been expressly turned back by United States authorities under another controversial policy called Title 42, which was supposed to come to an end last December 21 but is still in place.

Deportations of Nicaraguans were also in the news. Although a percentage of deported fellow nationals is lower compared to other nationalities in the region, between January and July 2022, more than 2,000 were deported from Mexico, while from the United States, specialist Manuel Orozco projects that some 1,500 Nicaraguans will swell the number of deportees in final data from the United States by the end of 2022.

Tours and long lines at Immigration in Nicaragua

The Nicaraguan exodus was not only mirrored in the official statistics of the destination countries, but also in the overcrowding of immigration services throughout Nicaragua. The endless lines, disorder and desperation prevailed in the Immigration offices with those seeking to renew their passports or to process one for the first time.

Scenes of buses and microbuses leaving from central points of the capital and other cities of the country on “excursions” or “tours” taking migrants to Guatemala also abounded. Once in Guatemala, Nicaraguans begin the most dangerous part of their anomalous journey through Mexico until they reach the US border.

Both scenes contrast and refute the Ortega Murillo regime’s official propaganda narrative about the national reality, in which massive migration or socio-political crisis do not exist. President Daniel Ortega has referred only once to migration, and he did so to blame the United States and the economic sanctions that country has imposed on his regime’s officials for corruption and human rights violations. “Keep putting sanctions, and migrants will continue to arrive at your doorsteps,” he said in October.

The truth is that Nicaraguans have left as never before due to the worsening political situation, Orozco explains, with the intention to migrate growing to more than 60%. To this must be added the “migration begets migration” phenomenon: “the transnational networks that appeared in 2020 and 2021 confirmed that the Nicaragua-United States route is viable for seeking asylum. This viability is measured in relation to the cost of migrating, the way in which to do it and the possibility of entering the United States,” said Orozco.

Changes in migration policies

As migration flows to the United States and Costa Rica increased, the governments of these countries changed their policies in an attempt to curb them.

In October, the United States announced that it would no longer receive Venezuelan migrants by land but would only open its doors to some 24,000 who arrive by plane and had gone through a previous process, which caused hundreds of Venezuelans to be stranded in the countries they travel through on their way out of Venezuela.

With the unusual increase of Nicaraguans arriving in the United States, some predict that a similar policy to the one previously described will be applied to them. The Miami Herald newspaper reported that the Biden Administration is considering it. So did the Reuters, quoting three US officials without revealing their names. [Such became true on January 5th.

In Costa Rica, President Rodrigo Chaves made changes in migratory policy, placing restrictions to refugee applicants, the great majority of whom (90%) are Nicaraguans. Costa Rica’s Immigration Office received as of November 2022, 222,056 refugee applications since 2018.

The changes were questioned by organizations that monitor the rights of migrants and refugees, while Chaves justified that economic migrants were abusing the refugee system and complained that the international community does not provide enough aid to cope with this migratory flow.

At about the same time that President Chaves referred to the economic migrants as a burden, a video of a couple of women kneeling and being beaten with bars in a clothing store in San Jose caused a stir in Costa Rica. Shortly thereafter, it was learned that the victims of the brutal aggression were Nicaraguan workers, like the tens of thousands employed in important sectors of the Costa Rican economy, in agriculture, commerce and construction.

In Confidencial we published a report on “The labyrinth of labor exploitation of Nicaraguan migrants in Costa Rica,” which reveals the abuses and mistreatment suffered by Nicaraguans who contribute 11% of the gross domestic product in Costa Rica, but whose rights are not always respected.

Remittances, a pillar of the Nicaraguan economy

Nicaraguan migrants do not only contribute to the economy of the country where they arrive, they also contribute to their home country. By the end of 2022, more than 3 billion dollars will have entered Nicaragua as remittances, most of it (70%) from the United States.

Nicaragua received a new record of 2.587 billion dollars in remittances between January and October of this year, 47.6% more than in the same period of 2021, reported the Central Bank of Nicaragua.

Remittance houses near La Merced Park, in San Jose, Costa Rica.   Photo: Katherine Estrada / Confidencial.

In “Nicas Migrantes” (Nicaraguan migrants) we tell how more than 850,000 households depend on family remittances in Nicaragua in 2022, that is half of family units.

As for Nicaraguan migration projections and trends for 2023, Orozco believes that the number will be lower next year “largely because the volume of people who have left the country, and who represent the active labor force, leaves fewer people in the country who may have the means and capabilities to leave.”

At this stage, more than 20% of the population has left the country, of which 10% left in the last four years, he points out. “Those who remain are the elderly and minors, who make up 30% of the population. The remaining are those who do not plan to emigrate, who are in a position to stay and assume the risks,” said Orozco. However, he estimates that another 150,000 Nicaraguans will leave.

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times