Fleeing persecution, Nicaraguans flee to Costa Rica, putting pressure on the border

An immigration official asks for documents from Nicaraguans trying to cross into Costa Rica.
An immigration official asks for documents from Nicaraguans trying to cross into Costa Rica. La Nación

The border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica is beginning to feel the pressure of the protests against the Daniel Ortega regime, with 100 to 150 Nicaraguans arriving each day through the Peñas Blancas crossing, according to the Costa Rican foreign ministry.

William Spindler, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said the number of Nicaraguans applying for asylum in Costa Rica has “increased exponentially.” At least 8,000 applications have been received since April, when the protests started, and another 15,000 are pending.

About 200 asylum requests are received each day, Spindler added. His agency has promised immigration officials assistance to increase their capacity to process at least 500 applications per day.

The peace talks between the Ortega government and the opposition, mediated by the Catholic Church, have stalled, sharpening a political crisis that has left more than 300 dead, thousands wounded and many displaced people in the Central American country.

Costa Rican Foreign Minister Epsy Campbell said recently that there had been “a significant increase” in Nicaraguan immigrant arrivals, but added that the exodus is not yet a crisis.

“The worsening of the political and social situation in Nicaragua is beginning to generate pressure for emigration, aside from the economic and trade pressures we have been suffering for weeks because of the problems with the transportation of merchandise,” she said. “There is a significant increase that could become an immigration crisis.”

She added that the Costa Rican government wants to “put on the international agenda that what’s happening in Nicaragua is unacceptable, with direct consequences for our country, and that the world should pay attention.”

Campbell said Costa Rica, with 4.7 million people, is processing 600 to 700 visa applications for Nicaraguans per day, many of them entering the country for the first time. About 100,000 to 150,000 Nicaraguan families live in Costa Rica, according to official figures.

“Many of the people arriving are young, 17 to 27 years old, most of them male, because they have been put on blacklists by paramilitaries who search for them and take them away,” said Gustavo Ayon, a Nicaraguan photography student who lives in Costa Rica.

“What they are doing is crossing the border illegally,” added Ayon, who is taking part in programs to help his fellow Nicaraguans.

Official Costa Rican figures show Nicaraguans filed nearly 10,000 asylum applications in the first half of this year. They include many who arrived long ago but now want to legalize their status because of the crisis back home.

The Costa Rican foreign ministry said in June that its immigration agencies reject 9 out of 10 asylum applications received.

This is not the first time Costa Rican authorities have faced such a situation. Nearly 18,000 Cubans passed through the country in 2015 and 2016, on their way north to the United States.

Many jammed shelters in Peñas Blancas, the same crossing where Nicaraguans are now arriving. The Costa Rican government provided them with food and medicine and cooperated with humanitarian flights that eventually allowed them to reach the United States.

The government has built two shelters, with a total capacity for 2,000 Nicaraguan immigrants. One is near the northern border with Nicaragua and the other near the southern border with Panama.

Alonso Tenorio, a photojournalist for La Nación newspaper, reported after a recent tour of the northern border area that many of the Nicaraguan immigrants were crossing the border illegally, outside established crossings.

Some said they were avoiding official crossings because they feared being arrested by Ortega government officials who have blacklists of opposition activists.

“The people cannot be treated as criminals and as terrorists for exercising their right to protest,” Auxiliary Managua Bishop Silvio Baez said Tuesday.