When some people hear the word ‘refugee’, the first images that may come to mind are of boats in the Mediterranean; a tent with the UNHCR logo in a dusty site; or people stranded at the border in the harsh winter, eager to cross to the other side. And, while these images (unfortunately) represent the reality for many refugees around the globe, they aren’t representative of the circumstances of all refugees in Costa Rica.

The United Nations estimates that by 2050, 66% of the world’s population will live in an urban setting. And refugees are not the exception. Refugees in Costa Rica, are part of the two-thirds of the world’s total refugees (19.5 million) that live in cities and towns. And just like you and me, refugees face the same common problems of living in a city. However, they have special needs because they are refugees. One such need is special protection. And for this reason, one of UNHCR’s top priorities is precisely to expand its protection of urban refugees.

But how do you expand the protection space in a city? How can we know where refugees and asylum seekers are located – at any given moment – in order to provide this special protection? How can we ensure they know what their rights are? This is a question that our staff in Costa Rica asked themselves. And one of the answers they found was that access to information is a form of protection.

The challenges

Now, in order to provide access to information, there is a need to strengthen communication channels. However, several challenges persist in doing so. Here are five of them:

  1. Refugees and asylum seekers are dispersed: Costa Rica’s geographical makeup is predominantly urban, with 76.8% of the population residing in urban areas. This means that asylum seekers and refugees are not located in a determined space (e.g. a camp), rather in other housing arrangements – like apartments, houses, shelters – throughout towns and cities. This poses a challenge in terms of the concentration of information in a certain space/channel.
  2. Organizations have limited capacity: Costa Rica is one of the preferred destinations for Latin American asylum seekers because of its political stability and its position as one of the strongest Spanish-speaking emerging economies on the continent. Nevertheless, Costa Rica is a relatively small country compared to other countries in the region and this impacts its capacity to respond. With an extension of 51,500km2 (19,653 mi), Costa Rica is home to approximately 4.8 million people. Government officials and other humanitarian organizations on the ground have limited capacity to effectively respond to the demand for information and support from migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. The government is particularly interested in responding to migrants’ information needs, while organizations – like UNHCR – focus on meeting the information needs for refugees and asylum seekers. In addition to this, some of the conditions at the border are precarious. Officials and humanitarian organizations do their best to provide as much information as possible, including identifying and guiding asylum seekers with the limited resources they have upon their arrival.
  3. Majority of Refugees and asylum seekers have limited resources: Many refugees and asylum seekers suffer from resource constraints. Some of them did not have time to plan their exit and brought whatever they had on them to Costa Rica. They also face the difficulty of deciding how to prioritize their scarce financial resources in order to cover their most basic needs: housing, food, and basic services, etc. As one Colombian refugee who fled cartel-related violence puts it,

    “…I came through Panama and I arrived in Costa Rica with only US$50 in my pocket.  I had to choose. If I paid for a hotel room, I would not have money left to buy food…” 

    These types of choices also extend to obtaining official and accurate information. Urban refugees need money to travel to places and offices, or make numerous phone calls in order to acquire simple information, such as their legal status in the country. But sometimes, they cannot even afford that. Therefore, they have to rely on (potentially less accurate) information sources such as friends or word of mouth.

  4. Refugees and asylum seekers are mobile and vulnerable: Given the particular situation of some of the refugees living in Costa Rica, they are constantly moving, changing their contact information (address/phone) for security reasons. This is a great challenge in terms of registration and access to lifesaving information. Refugees are more vulnerable than any other Costa Rican citizen given the fact they have a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Without access to information upon arrival to a new country, they are usually victims of information-scams and frauds.
  5. Information Complexity: Costa Rica is a Refugee Status Determination (RSD) country, which means the government of Costa Rica is primarily responsible for determining the status of asylum seekers. RSD is the legal or administrative process by which governments or UNHCR determine whether a person seeking international protection is considered a refugee under the law. This means that asylum seekers need to know their legal rights and obligations to have a regular (legal) status in their host country. However, there are different profiles of refugees and asylum seekers. Some of them have not completed primary education and for this reason the complexity of legal information is an additional burden to their struggle.

The Solution

In order to overcome these challenges, UNHCR’s Costa Rica operation – supported by UNHCR’s Innovation Unit – created a simple one-stop solution: ayuda.acnur.org (help.unhcr.org), a website that provides relevant information for asylum seekers and refugees in Costa Rica.

How does the site solve these information challenges?

  1. ayuda.acnur.org contains the minimum standard of information needed by asylum seekers in order to establish in the new host country (e.g. legal status, rights/obligations, housing, education, employment opportunities, support programs, language advice, to mention some). They can access the website wherever they are located, even prior to their arrival. One of the most valuable features of the website is that it lays out, step by step, the process to determine the legal status of an asylum seeker in Costa Rica. It helps reduce the issue of information complexity by portraying it in a simple way.
  2. The national directorate of migration (DGME) in Costa Rica welcomed the solution. They suggested that the site should be displayed in some of the country’s entry points (borders, bus stations, airport). They also suggested that the site should be printed in their migration pamphlet, which is a pamphlet that migration officers provide to any person arriving in Costa Rica. DGME states that the site is an additional and useful information service that supports integration, dignity and self-sufficiency of urban refugees in Costa Rica.
  3. Refugees do not need to move to obtain this information. And, accessing the website is relatively cheaper than making a phone call or travelling to an office to obtain this information. The only thing needed is internet connectivity, even if it is via data connectivity on a mobile phone. In fact, 30% of the website traffic comes from mobile-phone visitors. Overall, Costa Rica’s internet penetration is approximately 84.7%. It solves the dispersion and limited resources issues that refugees and asylum seekers have for accessing information.
  4. ayuda.acnur.org is the result of collective and participatory effort between refugees, UNHCR, implementing partners, non-governmental organizations, and the government. The information contained in the site is the updated official information, with government clearance. In addition to this, some of the iterations done to the website – in terms of design and content – were made because of the feedback of current refugees living in the country (e.g. vernacular language section). It might not eliminate scams and frauds, but the site can help to reduce them. Asylum seekers and refugees have easy access to official information, without overburdening officials and other staff at humanitarian organizations in repeating the information all over again. It solves the issue of their limited capacity.

The website is written in a simple language and its design is simple and lean. Ayuda.acnur.org is inspired by the UK government portal, winner of the 2013 web design award, which contains all the information needed for people arriving in the UK. We are not re-inventing the wheel. We search for the best solutions and adapt them to create impact for refugees and asylum seekers. The next stage will be to add more videos to the site, with the legal processes explained by video using the same simple language.

Since its official launch – the high-fidelity prototype of ayuda.acnur.org has received more than 1500 unique visitors (with more than 2100 page views). Approximately 60% of visitors are from Costa Rica, and the other 40% include visitors from Nicaragua, Venezuela, Colombia, Honduras, and El Salvador. The site is also advertised on the Facebook pages of UNHCR Costa Rica’s main implementing partners. This is evidence that building a participatory site can add to any efforts to expand the protection space in an urban setting.

Now, the question remains, how can we expand even more this space and increase site visits? Ideas are always welcome!



*Link Lab Diaries Series is a reflection on management of the innovation process. It is intended to document the process and the journey of managing the Link Lab, in a qualitative way.

We’re always looking for great stories, ideas, and opinions on innovations that are led by or create  impact for refugees. If you have one to share with us send us an email at [email protected]

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