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Survey indicates refugee profile, integration in Costa Rica

Survey indicates refugee profile, integration in Costa Rica

Refugees in Costa Rica are largely urban, middle-class, well educated and self-employed, according to a recent survey conducted by the UN refugee agency and the University of Costa Rica.
31 October 2002
Colombians, seen here in San José voting for the May elections at home, make up the largest group of refugees in Costa Rica.

SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica (UNHCR) - Refugees in Costa Rica are largely urban, middle-class, well educated and self-employed, according to a recent survey conducted by the UN refugee agency and the University of Costa Rica. The survey examines refugee profiles and common problems they face to give UNHCR ideas on how to help them integrate better into their host country.

The first results of the survey, titled "The level of local integration of refugees in Costa Rica, 2001-2002", were presented in San José by UNHCR's liaison office in Costa Rica and the Faculty of Law of the University of Costa Rica during the annual Migrant's Week in late September.

The study, based on a sample of more than 150 Colombian families living in the Costa Rican Central Valley, examines the level of local integration of refugees in the country. It uses indicators such as access to employment, housing, education and health care, and analyses the degree of refugee acceptance, discrimination and xenophobia in Costa Rica.

"UNHCR considers this study of great relevance as we have been able to extract an X-ray picture of the refugee population in Costa Rica after so many years," said Andrés Ramirez Silva, head of UNHCR in Costa Rica. "Definitely, the context that produces today's forced displacements and the profile of the refugee population that arrives in the country are very different from the one Costa Rica knew, and was used to, during the Central American crisis of the '80s and '90s."

According to the survey, refugees who have arrived in Costa Rica in the last two years are predominantly urban (both in their country of origin and in their settlement in Costa Rica), middle-class and have a high level of education. In most of the families, the husband/father arrived first in the country of asylum to establish a basic level of stability before bringing the rest of the family, either on his own or through the UNHCR's Family Reunification Programme.

The study shows that a significant number of refugees initially arrive with their own savings. Subsequently, many of them are self-employed and set up small family businesses.

Overall, however, the unemployment rate among refugees is high. The survey shows that while legal aspects have improved - every refugee in Costa Rica is legally entitled to work with the refugee ID card - some employers are still unclear about the significance of such documentation and about refugees' right to work in general.

Refugee access to education and health services appears to be acceptable, although some of those interviewed in the survey said they faced problems getting health care.

In terms of acceptance and discrimination, most of the refugees interviewed indicated that generally they did not feel discriminated against by the local community. However, cases of discrimination did crop up in specific areas - when the refugees were asking for jobs or requesting certain services.

The survey notes that there is more discrimination against Nicaraguans (the largest migration group in the country) than against Colombians (the second largest group).

"The results of this study will help us get a clearer vision of the panorama we have in front of us," said UNHCR's Ramirez. "From there, we will know what is the context we and the refugees are in. We will know the main difficulties refugees face in this country, and so we will try to implement the proper actions to reduce those effects."

Specifically, the UN refugee agency is in the process of developing three important components to expand its traditional assistance policy to support productive activities among refugees.

"What we will try is that instead of giving them the fish, we will give them a fishing rod and we will teach them how to fish," explained Ramirez. UNHCR is planning to support productive projects through micro-credit and by promoting Colombian handicrafts. The agency is also working on agreements with the Costa Rican Labor Minister to provide employers with clearer information on the refugee ID card's entitlements.

The recently-released survey was carried out in the framework of a project called "Strengthening of the protection to refugees and vulnerable migrant populations in Costa Rica", where students of several schools and faculties at the University of Costa Rica carry out their "communal work" unit in refugee-related topics.

The project was signed in July 2001, and the first group of students was trained in January this year. So far, 81 trained students have helped refugees in three areas. Besides conducting the recent integration survey, they have also provided support within the Costa Rican Refugee Department - where the eligibility process takes place - including helping to clear its backlog of pending cases.

The students have also helped out at UNHCR's implementation agency, where refugees receive legal, socio-economic and psychological assistance from the refugee agency's main non-governmental agency partner in Costa Rica.

By Giovanni Monge
UNHCR Costa Rica