Around three per cent of Costa Rica’s population is now made up of Nicaraguan refugees and asylum seekers, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said on Friday.

Doubling in number over the last eight months, the agency now estimates that there are more than 150,000 Nicaraguans who have crossed over the southern border, seeking refuge in Costa Rica.

“These figures, as of February 2022, confirm more Nicaraguans are currently seeking protection in Costa Rica than all the refugees and asylum seekers combined, during Central America’s civil wars in the 1980s, when Costa Rica was a sanctuary for those fleeing violence,” UNHCR spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov, told a press conference in Geneva.

Troubling trend

UNHCR is concerned that this trend could seriously strain Costa Rica’s already stretched asylum system and overwhelm support networks in the country.  

The sharp rise in the number of asylum seekers from Nicaragua corresponds with major socio-political events in the country,” explained Mr. Cheshirkov.

Moreover, Nicaraguans are also increasingly seeking protection further afield.

During the first two months of 2022, the number seeking asylum in Mexico, represented nearly a third of the total, for all of 2021.

Lilith, not her real name, was trafficked from Nicaragua as a teenager and now lives in Costa Rica.

UN Costa Rica/Danilo Mora

Lilith, not her real name, was trafficked from Nicaragua as a teenager and now lives in Costa Rica.

Open borders

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government of Costa Rica has kept its doors open for those seeking international protection.

According to UNHCR’s border monitoring in Costa Rica, many of the new asylum seekers are finding employment through the seasonal coffee harvest.

“However, their economic security could be compromised once the harvest is over, increasing the pressure on response institutions and UNHCR programmes,” warned the UNHCR spokesperson.

He noted that due to the pandemic-induced economic crisis, which has weakened individual support networks that provide shelter and economic opportunities to Nicaraguans, Costa Rica is experiencing a high level of unemployment.

This adds to the need for support from UNHCR and its partners.

Off the world’s radar

UNHCR assists Costa Rica and its host communities in welcoming asylum seekers and refugees through registration, legal aid, cash assistance, and donations of hygiene and cleaning kits, food and mattresses, Mr. Cheshirkov said.

The agency also provides psychosocial support, emergency shelter, vocational training, and activities to promote peaceful coexistence between refugees and the communities that host them.

“At a moment when the crisis in Ukraine is making daily headlines, these figures highlight the importance of remembering other less visible situations of displacement that persist and grow around the world,” said the UNHCR spokesperson.

We urge the international community to continue supporting Costa Rica and other countries hosting Nicaraguans in their efforts to receive and provide international protection to those who are forced to flee their country”.

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