UNHCR calls for more support for Nicaraguans forced to flee

Costa Rica. Costa Rican schools open their doors to displaced Nicaraguan children

A file photo from 2019 of Nicaraguan and Costa Rican schoolgirls in a group hug during recess at a school in Upala, Costa Rica.   © UNHCR/Flavia Sanchez

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is calling on the international community not to turn a blind eye to the plight of Nicaraguan refugees and asylum-seekers, as the pandemic exacerbates their vulnerabilities and needs.

More than 108,000 Nicaraguans have been forced to flee their country since 2018, with two thirds of them seeking refuge in Costa Rica. UNHCR commends the steps taken by the government to give them protection and assistance. But since the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, the capacity of refugees to cope with the situation has been undermined.

Assessments in the country showed that pandemic-related restrictions have forced many Nicaraguan refugees and asylum-seekers to go hungry, eating only once a day or sometimes not at all. Unemployment has soared, leading many to borrow money or work informally in exchange for food.

“While the needs of the Nicaraguans continue to grow, the world’s attention span seems to shorten,” said Milton Moreno, UNHCR Representative in Costa Rica. ”Without a prompt and adequate response, we risk yet another situation of completely preventable and unnecessary suffering.”

UNHCR has strengthened its programmes for Nicaraguan refugees and asylum-seekers, stepping up the provision of financial assistance to the most vulnerable. With UNHCR support, Costa Rica’s national health service has also expanded insurance coverage to 10,000 refugees and asylum seekers in need of life-saving health care.

However, funding for the response is falling short. UNHCR’s operation in Costa Rica has received only 11 per cent of the US$32 million needed to help refugees meet their most basic needs and support the authorities to expedite processing of asylum claims. 

“Costa Rica and UNHCR cannot address these challenges alone. We call on the international community to help us help the refugees,” added Moreno. 

In the three years since large-scale protests in their country triggered a complex social and political crisis, more than 85,000 Nicaraguans have sought protection in Costa Rica. During the height of the pandemic (April-Nov 2020), the registration of asylum claims almost ground to a halt, dropping to 22 on average per month. Meanwhile, pending appointments to lodge asylum applications were re-scheduled for 2021, resulting in severe delays. 

Since December 2020, when the Migration Authority’s Refugee Unit resumed in-person activities, new asylum claims have averaged 1,237 per month. UNHCR supports the authorities to ensure bio-safety measures and equipment are in place during registration, to reduce processing times and ensure the quality of decisions on asylum claims.

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