Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) conducted a working visit to Costa Rica from October 14-18, 2018. The purpose of the visit was to monitor the situation of Nicaraguan asylum seekers and people in need of international protection who have been forced to flee their country and seek international protection in Costa Rica. The IACHR delegation was composed of Commissioner Luis Ernesto Vargas Silva, Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants; Deputy Executive Secretary María Claudia Pulido; as well as specialists from the Rapporteurship on the Rights of Migrants, the Special Follow-Up Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI) and the IACHR Communications Office.
The Inter-American Commission thanks President Carlos Alvarado Quesada and his government for the invitation to conduct the visit, as well as for the openness and support of the authorities in addressing issues of interest to the IACHR and for the information provided during the visit. The IACHR also recognizes the important role that Costa Rica has played within the OAS, in promoting several actions for the protection of the human rights of the Nicaraguan people following the violent repression against demonstrators in April of this year. The IACHR also highlights the leadership of Costa Rica in supporting the work of the various bodies of the Inter-American Human Rights System and the promotion of the democratic values that inspire it.
The IACHR is also grateful for the information and support received from civil society organizations from Costa Rica and Nicaragua, as well as from regional organizations. In particular, the IACHR wishes to pay special recognition to the Nicaraguan people, many of them victims of serious human rights violations, who approached the IACHR delegation during the visit to tell their stories and give their testimonies.
The IACHR held meetings with the President of the Republic, Carlos Alvarado Quesada; the Director of the General Directorate of Migration and Immigration, Raquel Vargas Jaubert; the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs and Worship, Lorena Aguilar Revelo; the Administrative Migration Tribunal justices, Esteban Lemus Laporte, Gabriela Richard Rodríguez and Richard Calderón Agüero; as well as the Vice-Minister of the Ministry of Health, Denis Angulo Alguera; the Vice-Minister of the Interior, Víctor Barrantes Marín; the Vice-Minister of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, Natalia Álvarez Rojas; staff of the Refugee Units and the Directorate of Migration; and the Director of Legal Affairs of the Ministry of Public Education, Mario López Benavides. As part of the visit, the IACHR also met with groups of Nicaraguans, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Migration Welfare Collective in Costa Rica, the Permanent Forum on the Migrant and Refugee Population of the Office of the Ombudsman.
During the visit, the IACHR delegation gathered 259 testimonies from Nicaraguan asylum-seekers in need of international protection, which allowed the Inter-American Commission to identify the causes that forced them to flee Nicaragua, the risks and obstacles that they faced when leaving the country, and their current situation in Costa Rica. Based on these testimonies, the IACHR was able to identify that from mid-April to mid-October 2018, the people who have been forced to migrate from Nicaragua to seek international protection in Costa Rica are mostly students who participated in the demonstrations and protests; human rights defenders and leaders of social movements; peasants; people who have contributed to and supported demonstrators through the provision of food, safe houses and medical assistance; as well as doctors, journalists, and former military and police officers who have refused to participate in repressive acts ordered by the government. According to the information received, the rights to life, integrity and personal freedom of these individuals are at serious risk of being violated by the Nicaraguan State. These people have been the object of attacks and threats, and their families have been harassed. Additionally, several of them have warrants out for their arrest and have been arbitrarily charged with crimes—such as financing terrorism, involvement in organized crime, or the illegal carrying of weapons—for no reason other than having participated in demonstrations or supported dissent.
The IACHR delegation observed that the increase in the number of people forced to move from Nicaragua to Costa Rica in recent months is directly related to the identified stages of the repression of social protest that has occurred in Nicaragua since April of this year. In fact, the arrival of most people to Costa Rica began following the implementation of the so-called "Operation Cleanup" by the National Police, and armed para-police forces, which seeks to dismantle the so-called roadblocks and attack the demonstrators who remained in them. Additionally, this operation targets persons identified by the Citizen Participation Committees (CPC) as collaborators or sympathizers of the roadblock members. Once the blockades are dismantled, forced displacement continues due to persecution by Nicaraguan authorities through arbitrary detentions and the formulation of criminal accusations against demonstrators and individuals identified as dissidents, criminalizing them, as well as through the generalized repression against anti-government protests. As reported by the IACHR, these forms of repression by the Nicaraguan State have resulted in the deaths of 325 people, thousands of injuries, and hundreds of people illegally and arbitrarily detained and prosecuted.
The testimonies informed the IACHR that most Nicaraguans were internally displaced before deciding to leave their country, leaving their homes and taking shelter with relatives, friends, or in safe houses. Based on the testimonies received, and as a consequence of the intensification of various forms of repression, selective persecution, and criminalization, the IACHR was able to determine that most of these people were forced to flee Nicaragua through irregular crossing points, called "blind spots," on the border with Costa Rica. Crossing at so-called “blind spots” increased the risks and dangers to which these individuals were already exposed, but was necessary considering that as many of them indicated, the regular border points are militarized and the Nicaraguan authorities have lists with the names of people identified as opponents of the government in order to keep them from leaving the country. . Additionally, the IACHR was informed that these people often walk for long hours through clandestine routes—in some cases with the guide of "coyotes" (smugglers of migrants)—to reach Costa Rica, increasing their situation of vulnerability and risk of becoming victims of other abuses and violations of their human rights.
According to the information received by Costa Rica, it is estimated that from January to September 2018, around 52,000 Nicaraguans entered and have remained in the country; additionally, the information indicates that, at the time of the visit, there were a total of 40,386 people who had expressed a need for international protection in Costa Rica. From January to September, 13,697 individuals had formalized their asylum application through an interview with the migration authorities. In this regard, the IACHR notes that the greatest numbers of applications for recognition of refugee status were received from Nicaraguans between June and August 2018 (3,344, 5,279 and 4,055, respectively), when other forms of repression, criminalization and persecution began to become evident in Nicaragua.
According to the data generated annually by the UNHCR, the IACHR observes that, globally, in 2017 there were 1,478 refugees and 2,735 asylum seekers from Nicaragua. In this context, the IACHR notes with great concern how several forms of persecution in Nicaragua following the repression of protests that began in April of this year led to a 1,376% increase of Nicaraguan asylum seekers in Costa Rica alone by September 2018 as compared to the number obtained for this group globally in 2017.
As part of the visit, the IACHR conducted a tour to the border town of Peñas Blancas, where it was able to visit the border and the crossing point between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and observe the journey of Nicaraguans through trails and swamps to cross "blind spots" to Costa Rica, jumping the border wall. The IACHR delegation also visited the Temporary Care Center for Migrants (CATEM), located in the municipality of La Cruz, where it interviewed Nicaraguan asylum seekers in need of international protection and was able to see firsthand the precarious conditions in which they are sheltered. Subsequently, the IACHR went to the municipality of Upala, where it visited the shelter of the National Child Welfare Agency (PANI) for unaccompanied migrant children and adolescents, and observed their good conditions and care programs. During this tour, the IACHR delegation met with members of the Center for Social Rights of Migrants (CENDEROS) at their shelter for migrants in Upala, and with the organization HIAS.
The IACHR appreciates the open border policy of Costa Rica, which has protected tens of thousands of people who have been forced to flee Nicaragua. Likewise, the IACHR recognizes the progressive norms of Costa Rica regarding international protection; the promulgation of the Directive on the Comprehensive Address of the Country's Migratory Phenomenon, from June 12th, 2018; the elaboration of a plan for the Flow of Migrants, which the Costa Rican authorities announced will be presented on October 31st; as well as the indication on the next incorporation of the figure of complementary protection to Costa Rica's legal protection system. The IACHR also highlights the existence and conformation of the Administrative Migration Tribunal of Costa Rica, an institution that constitutes the only jurisdictional agency specialized in migration and asylum in Latin America.
In addition, the IACHR salutes the leadership and political will of the Costa Rican State to respect and guarantee the human rights of persons in need of international protection, in cooperation with international organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as well as its commitment to work in partnership with civil society organizations and international organizations to provide people with information on international protection procedures and guidance on how to access health and education services. Finally, the IACHR reaffirms its willingness to train Costa Rican authorities on the inter-American human rights standards, as well as on the situation in Nicaragua and the phases of repression that it has been monitoring throughout this year.
During the visit, the IACHR observed the existence of several challenges that have an impact on the effective enjoyment of human rights by Nicaraguans in need of international protection. These include the cost of accessing the asylum procedure through the call system; the long duration of the procedures, which can last from a year to a year and a half, and leave Nicaraguans without a response to their requests; the lack of access to the right to work until at least 9 months after the request for an appointment; and the refusal of migratory authorities to advance the work permit when there is an application for employment. The Commission also noted the existence of a restrictive list of professions to which asylum seekers may devote themselves; the lack of further information regarding their rights and the asylum procedure; the lack of psychosocial support; and the difficulty of effectively enjoying their economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to health, housing, education and work. The Inter-American Commission also received information on cases of Nicaraguans in need of international protection who have been rejected and returned to the border, without international protection needs or situations of vulnerability having been analyzed.
In addition to the above, although the IACHR highlights positively the creation and establishment of places such as the Center for Attention to Migrants (CATEM) North, the Commission was also able to verify the existence of deficiencies in the tents in which people live, permanently exposed to the inclemency of the weather; the lack of basic provisions for their shelter and protection, such as adequate sheets and clothing; the lack of sanitary conditions as they are constantly exposed to animals such as rodents and snakes; as well as the lack of adequate spaces for their coexistence, food and recreation, particularly for children and adolescents. The IACHR also received worrisome information from Nicaraguans housed at the shelter about acts of discrimination and xenophobia, and situations of insecurity they face when leaving the center, as they are easily identified by the CATEM bracelet they are required to wear.
In view of the serious and massive migration of Nicaraguans who are fleeing their country to other countries—mainly to Costa Rica due to the geographical proximity and historical migrations of Nicaraguans to that country—, the IACHR calls upon the States of the region and the international community to implement a regional and international response based on shared responsibility and the respect for and guarantee of the human rights of these people, so that Costa Rica has the necessary resources to respond adequately and effectively to this emergency humanitarian situation. In this regard, the IACHR calls on the States of the region to strengthen humanitarian assistance to those forced to leave Nicaragua, as well as to the receiving communities in order to provide protection to those in need.
In light of the foregoing, the IACHR recommends to Nicaragua the following measures:
Refrain from and immediately cease acts of persecution against persons identified as opponents and adopt effective measures for the protection of persons in situations of persecution and risk.
Provide the necessary guarantees so that people can transit and reside freely in Nicaragua, which implies refraining from continuing to criminalize and generate causes that increase the forced displacement of Nicaraguan people.
Protect and provide humanitarian assistance to persons who have been or will be forced to move internally, in addition to investigating and punishing violent acts that generate internal displacement.
Guarantee that all persons can freely leave Nicaraguan territory and respect their right to seek and receive asylum in foreign territory, in accordance with the provisions of Articles 22.2 and 22.7 of the American Convention on Human Rights.
In addition, the IACHR recommends to Costa Rica the following actions and measures to ensure the protection of the human rights of Nicaraguan persons in its territory:
Continue to maintain open and accessible borders, guaranteeing entry into the territory to Nicaraguans who require international protection or to satisfy urgent humanitarian needs, in respect of the principle and right to non-refoulement.
Guarantee recognition of refugee status to Nicaraguans with a well-founded fear of persecution upon return to Nicaragua—including the so-called sur place refugees—through fair, agile and efficient procedures that guarantee the right to receive assistance to satisfy, at least, their basic needs. In particular, implement measures to shorten the time limits for recognition of refugee status and ensure timely access to identity documentation.
Generate an adequate system of registration of entry, stay and departure of persons, which allows for the establishment of reliable statistics in a disaggregated manner, including data such as gender, occupation, profession, profiles and agents responsible for the persecution of Nicaraguan persons. In particular, prioritize the identification of persons in need of international protection and persons in vulnerable situations or with special protection needs.
Improve the conditions of the Temporary Migrant Care Centers (CATEM) in order to guarantee the safety, well-being and right to education of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. Also, provide special care for children and adolescents in the centers and maximize efforts to open centers in other cities in the country.
Guarantee the right to information and free legal assistance on asylum procedures from government and civil society bodies for newly-arrived Nicaraguans, as well as those who have resided in the country on a regular or irregular basis.
Consider the implementation of the expanded definition of refugee established in the Cartagena Declaration, as well as the concept of complementary protection. In addition, the adoption of collective protection responses, including the possibility of determining prima facie or group recognition of refugee status, which implies collective or group recognition of persons as refugees, without the need for an individualized assessment.
Adopt measures aimed at promoting international support and shared responsibility in the rescue, reception and accommodation of Nicaraguans. It is essential to implement a coordinated strategy of regional and international scope, which must be based on shared responsibility and a human rights approach to respond to the rapid and massive situation of people forced to migrate from Nicaragua, and requires strengthening technical and financial assistance to the Costa Rican State. It is also necessary to strengthen the communities that receive migrants and their families.
Promote the social integration and resilience of the Nicaraguan people, particularly by guaranteeing the right to non-discrimination and economic, social and cultural rights—including access to the right to work, education and social security—from the moment they submit their application for recognition of refugee status or other forms of international protection.
Continue to implement positive measures to combat discrimination and xenophobia through educational and awareness-raising campaigns aimed at promoting multicultural societies, as well as training for officials serving persons in need of international protection.
Strengthen the Directorate of Migration and Immigration (DGME) and other Costa Rican State institutions responsible for international protection procedures, shelter centers, provision of services and access to work for refugees, asylum-seekers and persons in need of international protection, by allocating an adequate budget, organizational structure and sufficient material and human resources to deal with requests for international protection in a timely manner by those institutions.
The IACHR will continue to work on the preparation of a report on the situation of Nicaraguans who have been forced to flee Nicaragua, based on the information received during their working visit to Costa Rica, as well as its monitoring mechanisms and the Special Follow-Up Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI).
A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.