UN Refugee Agency exaggerates number of Nicaraguan refugees

Two years ago, COHA reported on the “refugee” crisis fabricated around Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica. Today, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) claims that “102,000 people fled Nicaragua and sought asylum in Costa Rica” in 2021. As this article shows, this claim is inaccurate, further adding to the myth that Nicaragua is suffering from a refugee crisis.

On June 20, a group called “SOSNicaragua,” based in Costa Rica, organized a conference to mark World Refugee Day. Entitled “Tearing down the walls, building hope”, it was addressed by the head of the Costa Rican government’s Refugee Unit, Esther Núñez. She confirmed that, since 2018, Costa Rica had received 175,055 asylum applications, the majority from Nicaragua. However, the rest of his message must have been less well received by attendees. Her unit had limited capacity to process these cases, she said, but in any case “a large part” of the people who apply for refugee status in Costa Rica do so “because they have to regulate their migratory status. , but they don’t really have the right to asylum” [my emphasis].

Focus on Nicaraguan asylum applications in Costa Rica

Núñez was repeating a point made by the then President of Costa Rica, Carlos Alvarado, when the number of asylum applications began to increase after the violent US-backed coup attempt in Nicaragua in 2018. He said that more than 80% of asylum applications came from people who lived in Costa Rica without papers before the Nicaraguan crisis. In the four years since that declaration, Costa Rica has decided on only 7,803 asylum applications from Nicaraguans and rejected 60% of them. Even getting a first appointment to apply means a wait of two to three years, according to a Costa Rican NGO that helps refugees.

Yet the UN behaves as if all asylum claims are not only justified but come from people who have recently crossed the border, driven by political persecution in Nicaragua. On June 16, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned that “socio-political, economic and human rights crises” in Nicaragua are forcing thousands of people from their homes, in a wave of migration that is increasing in “unprecedented numbers”.] Bachelet said that over the past eight months “the number of Nicaraguan refugees and asylum seekers in Costa Rica has doubled, reaching a total of 150,000 new applicants since 2018.” She made no reference to the Costa Rican government’s claims that most of these requests come from Nicaraguans who were already living there before 2018. Nor did she explain that the requests had only “doubled” because A significant number had reached the formal stages after sometimes waiting years to be processed.

Costa Rica and Nicaragua are economically interdependent

As Jeff Abbott points out in The progressive, “Nicaraguans have been migrating to Costa Rica for decades. The two countries are historically and geographically linked, with seasonal migration occupying important jobs within the Costa Rican economy. He quotes the coordinator of the Nicaraguan Links Association of Costa Rica, describing “the economic interdependence between the two countries”. In fact, around 385,000 Nicaraguans are officially resident in Costa Rica, with perhaps another 200,000 without official papers, representing around 10% of the population. In a typical year, there are more than 900,000 official cross-border movements of Nicaraguans, with a similar number of departures and entries into the country: mainly, migrant workers going back and forth, depending on the opportunities of seasonal jobs in Costa Rica (see table). Thousands more make unofficial crossings to avoid paying border fees.


However, official cross-border movements fell by two-thirds in 2020, during the pandemic. Costa Rica was desperate to keep its Nicaraguan workers, with the then vice president urging Nicaraguans to stay. But the country has been hit hard by COVID-19, which has severely affected its tourism trade: The Economist reported that public debt had reached one of the highest levels in Latin America and, in return for loans to bail out the government, the IMF insisted on spending cuts. Poverty now affects almost a third of Costa Rican households. In 2021, more than 5,000 more Nicaraguans left Costa Rica than entered it. Although traffic has increased in the first months of 2022, it is still less than half of pre-pandemic levels. The lack of employment opportunities in Costa Rica, for Nicaraguans who have always worked there, is one of the factors leading to more migration north to the United States.

Of course, Nicaragua has also been affected by the pandemic, as well as the additional damage caused in November 2020 by two devastating hurricanes. Its economy grew by 10% in 2021, bringing it back to pre-pandemic levels, but the growth was still not enough for the country to recover from the severe economic effects of the attempted coup. State of 2018. It is therefore not surprising that, while far fewer Nicaraguans travel to Costa Rica for work, a portion of those who are already there seek to regularize their immigration status by seeking asylum. , as Esther Núñez pointed out.

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Migrants tend to go to the United States

The temporary severance of historic economic ties between the two countries has almost certainly given an additional boost to Nicaraguan migration north to the United States. Some 163,000 Nicaraguans have been encountered after crossing the U.S. border since January 2020, whereas before that date their number was a few hundred each month. While (still) this increase is questioned (by the BBC, for example)[11] on the “atmosphere of terror” in Nicaragua, the reality is more banal.

As Tom Ricker, writing for the Quixote Center, points out, while political instability may be a factor, it is certainly not After by a greater factor than for the greater migratory flows from the countries of the “northern triangle” (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala). Post-COVID economic issues are equally as important, perhaps more important, in the Northern Triangle. But the are Nicaraguan-specific factors: reduced job opportunities in Costa Rica, growing effect of US sanctions, and relatively more favorable treatment of Nicaraguans after crossing the US border. Indeed, the BBC cites the case of a Nicaraguan who declared himself to the American border patrol, was detained for a few weeks and then released pending a hearing on his case. Many newcomers obtain travel permits to join relatives elsewhere in the United States, and the government pays for bus and plane transportation. The perception that well-paying jobs in the United States are readily available to Nicaraguans has been created by social media advertising and the activities of “coyotes” who facilitate travel north.

The UN Refugee Agency is wrong – again

However, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) seems to ignore the economic factors that drive migration and increasingly claims that Nicaraguans escape political repression. In his recently released Global Trends 2021 report, he points to Nicaragua on a world map showing forced displacement, and a graph shows that Nicaragua ranked second in the world for asylum applications last year. , behind Afghanistan but ahead of Syria (see graph).


Of the 111,600 claims attributed to Nicaraguans in 2021, almost all (102,000) are made in Costa Rica. However, Costa Rica’s official figure for claims registered by Nicaraguans in 2021 is just over half that figure, at 52,894. How does UNHCR arrive at the higher figure? The key to understanding the statistics is realizing the extremely slow pace with which Costa Rica processes asylum applications. By the end of 2021, it had processed less than 7% of the 116,970 applications from Nicaraguans received in the previous four years. In addition to these formal applications, there are around 50,000 additional applications at various stages before registration, many of which were submitted before 2021. In correspondence with the UNHCR statistics office, they revealed that “in agreement with the government of Costa Rica,” they added. this backlog from what might be called “pre-applications” to the official count of registered applications, to produce a total of 102,000. But the Global Trends report, far from specifying this, treats this figure as referring to New claims in 2021 only, and concludes that 102,000 Nicaraguans “fleed” their country last year (see photo). The caption states: “In 2021, some 102,000 people fled Nicaragua and sought asylum in Costa Rica.”

Source: UNHCR Global Trends 2021.

Source: UNHCR Global Trends 2021.

Why the UNHCR wants to portray Nicaraguans as being as much at risk as people fleeing Afghanistan and Syria is a question only they can answer. This is a convenient ploy for the Costa Rican government, since it receives financial assistance from the UN to respond to the plight of Nicaraguans. However, it also gives new impetus to the media message that Nicaraguans are fleeing persecution. Because increasing Nicaraguan migration to the north is the focus of media attention, exaggerating the southward flows to Costa Rica adds to the impression of a country in crisis. This adds fuel to the flames for the Nicaraguan opposition media, of course. For instance, Confidential, a website highly cited by international media, gives ever more exaggerated versions of migration figures. He claimed in June that some 400,000 Nicaraguans had left the country since the start of 2020. Yet even adding up the encounters over this period at the US borders (163,000), with the accumulation of asylum requests in Costa Rica over the same period (93,000), only produces a total of 256,000. And as we’ve seen, it doesn’t compare.

Empirical evidence indicates that migration to Costa Rica has almost certainly declined sharply, while there has been a corresponding increase in migration to the United States. Economic motivations are likely to be predominant, although there are also political factors. However, this is far from an ‘exodus’ and it is ridiculous to create a headline (as the BBC does) suggesting that most people would ‘rather die’ than stay in Nicaragua. Unfortunately, and irresponsibly, the UN Refugee Agency is adding to the scary stories, rather than sticking to the facts.

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