Costa Rica + 3 more

Seeking integration in a city lacking economic resources: A case study of refugees in Towns in San Jose, Costa Rica

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By Michelle Vargas


This case report looks at migration to Costa Rica and explores the main opportunities for and obstacles to integration in terms of migratory status, access to public health, jobs, education, and recreation. It shares which organizations refugees find supportive, what kind of aid is available or not, which areas of the city they find desirable and why (“Mapping the Migrant Population” section), how migrants and hosts feel socially excluded (“Obstacles to Integration” section), and what kinds of work are available in the city (“Opportunities for Integration” section).

The report is based on my experiences as a resident of San José and a volunteer with a refugee collective, “Rumbo Seguro.” I supplement my own experiences with interviews with asylum seekers from Venezuela, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, as well as with activists, reporters, and government officials.

The Author's Position in San Jose and Experiences Researching this Case

I grew up in rural Costa Rica and moved to the capital eight years ago to start my career in sociology. I volunteered for two years in a squatter community on the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and then with refugees in Germany, where I lived with refugee minors from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq for eight months. Observing refugees and experiencing for myself what it was like to become settled in Germany was the first time I experienced what is required to integrate into a new society.

In my experience, one of the greatest challenges in building close connections with refugees in Costa Rica is the lack of community outreach aimed at helping migrants. Refugees in San José are disconnected from Costa Ricans’ daily lives. The work of integration falls to non-governmental organizations (NGOs), whose employees are already overworked. Refugees themselves do not have much free time to improve their situations.

My main interactions with migrants have been through my volunteer work with Rumbo Seguro and its project “Perchero Comunitario,” which consists of gathering clothes for new arrivals and providing refugees with free high school exam preparatory classes. This experience was deeply meaningful and connected me to a range of Costa Ricans and migrants involved in the integration process.

My research for this report has reinforced my desire to better understand the ways in which “development” policies in Central and South America are causing migration and what it means to live in a city where migrants’ rights depend on their immigration status.

For more on the methods used for this case report, continue to Appendix A.