World Refugee Survey 2009: Costa Rica
Costa Rica hosted around 11,900 recognized refugees during 2008, 9,900 of them Colombian. There were approximately 6,200 people in need of protection without formal refugee status, and 460 asylum seekers still had outstanding claims. More than 80 refugees resettled to other countries during 2007, out of nearly 190 submitted for resettlement by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
2008 Events Summary
Costa Rica detained at least 87 asylum seekers during 2008, all of whom were able to lodge asylum claims or otherwise pursue legal status in Costa Rica.
Authorities continued to link Colombian refugee flows with increased crime in public statements.
In 2008 the Migration Ministry approved 387 of 940 asylum requests.
A study supported by the Office of the UN High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) revealed that Colombian youth (adolescents and children) experience discrimination in their host communities. 4 out of 10 respondents/Colombians reported verbal abuse in their schools and communities.
In March, authorities discovered a Cuban woman had been living in the airport terminal while she waited for a reply to her request for refugee status. Refugee applicants must wait nine months and cannot work during that time.
In April, after a FARC bust in Ecuador, authorities reported that some Colombian refugees in Costa Rica since 2002 are FARC operatives.
In April, Colombian citizen/refugee in Costa Rica declares outrage at continuous false accusations of his links to FARC in recent national newspaper.
In December, the Supreme Court of Costa Rica ruled in favor of a Colombian refugee who was fired in 2004 for his nationality.
Law and Policy
Costa Rica has incorporated the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention) and its 1967 Protocol into its domestic law, although the 2006 Immigration Act which governs refugees and asylum seekers is not in full compliance with the Convention. It provides no clear definition of refugee and allows more grounds for cessation of or exclusion from refugee status than the 1951 Convention.
Asylum seekers have to present themselves to the General Directorate of Migration (GDM), at which point they receive temporary papers and appointments for refugee status determinations within a month. Migration staffers conduct interviews, fingerprint applicants, and assess claims, and asylum seekers have to present a passport or another legal identity document, a birth certificate (or sworn statement), criminal record (or sworn statement), and two passport photographs. Asylum seekers are allowed to have counsel, but the counsel cannot participate in the interviews. UNHCR attempts to monitor the process, but the Government does not always permit this.
Rejected asylum seekers can appeal decisions twice, if they do so within three days of their rejection. The same immigration officials who decided their initial cases hear the first appeals, but officials from the Ministry of Public Security decide second appeals. The Act allows for appeals, but in practice the same officer who hears the initial claim decides the appeal. A second appeal to the Minister for Police and Governance is also possible, although success at that level is extremely rare.
Detention/Access to Courts
The detention center in Hatillo, outside San José, is dirty, poorly ventilated, overcrowded, and poorly lit and provides unhealthy food for inmates. UNHCR and the government Ombudsman monitor detention conditions, with UNHCR visiting monthly and the Ombudsman preparing annual reports.
Detained asylum seekers can appeal to the courts, but few do so because of the generally short duration of their detention and the complexity of the court system. UNHCR and its implementing partner, ACAI, assist with appeals, and the Government provides free legal assistance.
Asylum seekers receive documents legalizing their status as soon as they approach the GDM. The sheets of paper with attached photos they receive did not resemble other Costa Rican identity documents, so while authorities generally accept them, many Costa Rican citizens do not. Upon receiving status, refugees can obtain an identity document similar to those used by nationals at a cost of $48 per year.
Refugees and asylum seekers have access to national courts on par with Costa Ricans.
Freedom of Movement and Residence
Costa Rica does not have camps or segregated settlements, and refugees and asylum seekers could live and move freely throughout the country.
Refugees can obtain international travel documents from the GDM by filling out a form, with the only major restriction being that it grants permission to travel to a refugee's country of origin only in emergencies such as the death or illness of a family member.
Right to Earn a Livelihood
Refugees have the right to work, independently or for an employer. Asylum seekers, however, do not. The identity cards issued by the GDM give refugees access to all jobs, without the need for additional work permits. To practice professions, they have to meet the qualifications of Costa Rican professional associations, which often involve paying fees and obtaining certification of their educational qualifications from their country of origin. ACAI provides assistance in obtaining such documentation for refugees.
In response to complaints that some employers refuse to hire refugees because of their nationality or immigration status, UNHCR, ACAI, and the Ministry of Labor have formed a program to assist refugees in finding jobs, fighting discrimination, and protecting their rights.
Costa Rican law requires employers and refugees to pay their respective shares of the national social insurance tax.
Public Relief and Education
Refugees can obtain health insurance through the national social security program by making monthly payments, which all workers and employers are required to make. The uninsured can obtain medical treatment only in emergencies, for children, or for pregnant women. Asylum seekers cannot work, but UNHCR has an agreement with the national public heath service to provide services for asylum seekers.
Costa Rican law requires free education for all children through grade 9, including refugees.
Costa Rica has no relief programs directly targeting refugees, but they are able to participate in most national programs. Costa Rica's housing subsidy program, however, is available only to nationals and permanent residents. UNHCR operates microcredit programs for refugees, provides childcare, and offers training in computers and English.
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