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COVID-19 driving Nicaraguan refugees to hunger and desperation

Briefing notes

COVID-19 driving Nicaraguan refugees to hunger and desperation

28 August 2020
Costa Rica. Nicaraguan family that escaped from the political conflict in Nicaragua
A Nicaraguan asylum seeker embraces his children in Costa Rica, March 2019.

More than three quarters of Nicaraguan refugees and asylum seekers in Costa Rica are going hungry, eating only once or twice a day as a result of the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is concerned that this could drive returns in adverse conditions.

Before the pandemic hit, and thanks to effective local integration initiatives in Costa Rica, only three percent of refugees were eating once a day or less. Now, this has more than quadrupled to 14 per cent. This is according to a humanitarian assessment conducted by UNHCR in July and August aimed at supporting Costa Rican authorities address the needs of more than 81,000 Nicaraguans who have sought international protection in the country.

The majority of Nicaraguan refugees and asylum seekers in the country, 63 per cent, now report eating only two meals a day.

Refugee hosting communities are facing similar conditions and the economic contraction in these countries will make it even more difficult for refugees and their hosts to recover.

Costa Rica generously hosts nearly 80 percent of all refugees and asylum seekers from Nicaragua who have fled human rights violations and persecution, or some 81,000 people. It is among ten countries worldwide that received the most new asylum claims last year, some 59,200.

With a large proportion of forcibly displaced people in Latin America reliant on the informal economy, especially as they begin their integration into the communities that host them, COVID- related quarantine measures are now impacting livelihoods and driving food insecurity.

Only 59 per cent of refugee families in Costa Rica are reporting steady work-related income streams as of the end of July, a staggering decrease from 93 per cent before the pandemic hit. This leaves many also at risk of eviction and homelessness. A fifth of Nicaraguan refugees surveyed in Costa Rica said they now do not know where they will live in the next month.

Hardships faced by Nicaraguan refugees and asylum seekers, including loss of livelihoods, eviction and hunger, have also been reported elsewhere in the region, including in Panama, Guatemala and Mexico.

Twenty-one percent of Nicaraguan refugees and asylum seekers surveyed said at least one member of their household is now contemplating a return to Nicaragua, mostly due to a lack of income or food. This is despite the risks they reported having fled. More than 3,000 asylum claims in Costa Rica have been withdrawn to date, principally by Nicaraguan nationals.

UNHCR continues to provide impartial information to those considering whether to return to Nicaragua, where the social and political crisis has driven more than 102,000 people to seek protection abroad.

In the face of this worsening situation, UNHCR is working together with governments and partners to ensure that asylum seekers and refugees -- for whom return is not an option -- receive the support and assistance they need in host countries.

Since the start of the pandemic, UNHCR has stepped-up its cash assistance programmes throughout Central America to support forcibly displaced people in vulnerable conditions. In Costa Rica, UNHCR has assisted 1,221 vulnerable and at-risk families.

Through its partnership with the Costa Rican Social Security System, UNHCR is also ensuring health coverage for 6,000 asylum seekers with serious and chronic conditions. In Panama, UNHCR, through partners, has supported nearly 700 people with cash assistance, and has helped dozens of families with rent payments or mediation to avoid evictions.

However, a severe lack of funding is hampering the ability to address urgent humanitarian needs. UNHCR’s operation in Costa Rica, whose financial requirements for 2020 stand at US$26.9 million, is only 46 per cent funded to date.

UNHCR continues to support efforts by States to address the needs of people forced to flee in Central America, as part of the regional framework for the comprehensive protection and solutions to forced displacement in Central America – known as MIRPS. It is also calling on all member States of the MIRPS to step up coordination and support in the face of new COVID-related challenges.

For a complete picture of forced displacement in Central America and Mexico visit the UNHCR operational data portal.


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