Blog post by Ana-Laura Méndez-Araya and Veena Siddharth.*
Costa Rica and Nicaragua are Central American neighbors with stark differences historically, politically and economically. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how interdependent the two countries are, especially with regards to the large number of Nicaraguans who are migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Costa Rica. This piece is based on research before and during the pandemic as well as interviews with Nicaraguans in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Spain.
Politics and the pandemic in Nicaragua
One third of Nicaragua’s 6,500,000 people live under the poverty line, making it the second poorest country in Latin America. Estimates are that 80% of Nicaraguans work in the informal sector, subsisting on daily wages with little or no savings at all. The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened these conditions.
The pandemic has also intensified a political crisis in Nicaragua. In April 2018 protests spread all over the country after continuous human rights violations by the government and the institution of social security reforms. Over the next few months, the protests transformed into a larger expression of opposition to President Daniel Ortega’s regime. Students, journalists, human rights defenders, activists, farmers, health workers and other professionals demonstrated peacefully, only to have police officers and government forces attack them, in some cases with live ammunition.
By September 2018, more than 300 people were killed by government forces, there were dozens of arbitrary detentions and numerous incidents of disappearances, torture and extra judicial killings. Over the next two years, many Nicaraguans fled as asylum seekers, with over 100,000 crossing the border into Costa Rica alone. “I had to go into hiding for having helped a wounded student protestor” said José (not his real name). Like many Nicaraguans escaping the oppression of 2018, he first arrived in Costa Rica but the barriers to practicing medicine were insurmountable and he is now an asylum seeker in Spain.
The Nicaraguan government’s reaction to COVID-19 has been unorthodox, to say the least. In March 2020 when countries around the world went into lockdown, Ortega’s administration organized public gatherings and communal events. On 13 March, Vice President and First Lady Rosario Murillo even organized a march for masses of people called “Love in the time of COVID-19” Those who speak openly of the virus’s risks, the need for social distancing and the need to avoid public gatherings have faced retaliation by the government.
The official count of cases in Nicaragua as of 28 July 2020 was 3,672 cases and 116 deaths, but public health experts see these figures as severely underestimating the crisis. The COVID-19 Citizen Observatory, a multidisciplinary citizen collective that has become a trusted source of information on COVID-19 data, estimated 9,044 positive cases and 2,437 suspicious deaths as of 29 July. However, without widespread testing or accurate monitoring of deaths it is impossible to know the exact figures.
“Nicaragua is the only country to take no measures against coronavirus. The public health system has already collapsed” said Managua-based epidemiologist Dr. Leonel Argüello. “We are on our own” he added. Dr. Arguello estimated that by mid-June Nicaragua had at least 29,000 COVID-19 cases.
Government experts have privately agreed with Dr. Argüello’s estimates. In a leaked document from as early as February 2020, Nicaraguan health officials predicted that up to 32,500 Nicaraguans could test positive for COVID-19, 8,125 of whom could have severe symptoms and 1,016 of whom might require intensive care beds for the same period. Nicaragua has only 160 ventilators available, 80% of them were already in use. Currently, Nicaragua’s public hospitals have collapsed.
With the pandemic, the already pervasive persecution of health professionals such as José, has intensified. Discussing dangers posed by the virus means risking retribution. The government attributes many COVID-19 deaths to “atypical pneumonia”. To date at least 22 doctors have been fired for speaking openly about the need for social distancing and protection.
In public hospitals, doctors and nurses were initially forbidden from wearing protective masks and gowns, or even to mention the virus. The government’s stated reason was to avoid causing panic, but the result is that many health workers became infected.
According to Dr. Argüello, in May and June of this year the government relented to allow doctors and nurses to use personal protective equipment (PPE), but they must purchase it themselves rather than use the supplies donated by WHO and several governments. This concession is mainly symbolic, as a month’s supply of masks and gowns could cost three quarters of a nurse’s monthly salary. The situation is so dire that PAHO/WHO took the unusual step of directly requesting the Nicaraguan government to protect its health workers. Ortega and Murillo have ignored these entreaties.
The government’s negligence means that the death toll is overwhelming, with bodies have been buried in haste without families being told, or even worse, families are misinformed about a death. Families of those who have died from COVID-19 are threatened if they reveal that COVID-19 as opposed to “atypical pneumonia”, was the cause of death.
“Like a satanic ritual, I see the police digging graves at night in the dark. They want to hide the deaths. More than 20 people died in my neighborhood in less than a week. If you take pictures or are seen watching you could be killed,” says Antonio (not his real name) a university student in the opposition who lives in Managua hiding at home to escape both the virus and government persecution.
Allies of the government are not protected. Antonio estimates that more than half of the deaths in his barrio are government supporters. The families do not appear to believe that the deaths were due to COVID-19. A number of high-ranking government officials have also died of the virus. Thus, the government is not even protecting its own supporters.
The pandemic in Costa Rica
It was a pair of American tourists from New York who first brought COVID-19 to Costa Rica in March 2020. Soon afterwards, a Costa Rican doctor who later died returned from a trip to Panama and unknowingly spread it. The government of Costa Rica reacted quickly. The Minister of Health, an epidemiologist, instituted immediate regulations to restrict movement, close the borders, discourage public gatherings and implement social distancing.
In the first three months of the pandemic, Costa Rica’s clear messaging, lockdown and restrictions resulted in a lower rate of infections and deaths than other Latin American countries. Costa Rica, like other countries, struggled to balance the need for halting movement to slow the spread of the virus with the need for economic activity, especially in a country so reliant on international tourism.
After very low numbers, Costa Rica’s virus count jumped alarmingly after opening up the economy in mid-June 2020. On 28 June, there were 3130 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 15 deaths, while just a month later and a half later on 11 August the country had 24 508 confirmed cases and 255 deaths. About 30% of confirmed cases are from foreigners.
Nicaraguans in Costa Rica during the pandemic
Despite the fact that the virus’ documented entry into Costa Rica was through Americans and a Costa Rican, it is Nicaraguans in Costa Rica who are associated with COVID-19, due to both the unchecked spread of the virus in Nicaragua and prejudice against them.
Three quarters of migrants in Costa Rica are Nicaraguan, numbering about 400,000. They are concentrated in low-skilled jobs in construction, agriculture, domestic work, private security, restaurants and the tourism industry. According to a 2018 report by the OECD, the value added to the economy by migrant workers in Costa Rica is greater than that of nationals.
Nicaraguan migrants often work in exploitative conditions without benefits and are estimated to earn about 60% what a Costa Rican would earn for similar work. Now with borders closed, temporary workers cannot enter when needed, creating concerns for Costa Rican coffee, banana and pineapple growers who depend on short-term labor from Nicaragua to pick their crops. In June 2020, the government of Costa Rica issued a decree to allow foreigners who had been in the country between January 2016 and January 2020 to stay and work in agriculture-related industries.
Although the Nicaraguan asylum seekers who have arrived in Costa Rica since April 2018 have higher professional and educational levels, discrimination and obstacles to getting professionally accredited in Costa Rica relegate most to the same types of unskilled jobs as other migrants. “My neighbor is a math teacher who came after 2018. She is working in construction” says Lucia, a migrant who works in a hotel in Puntarenas. “She cannot get the papers needed to work in Costa Rica”.
While Costa Ricans have suffered economically from the pandemic, Nicaraguans tend to have low paid and informal sector jobs that were among the first to go. Very few of these jobs qualify for government assistance. Currently, about 87% of Nicaraguan asylum seekers are unemployed. Moreover, many migrants in Costa Rica live in crowded conditions that make social distancing at home difficult.
In addition to job losses and concerns about their own health, many Nicaraguans are also worried about their families at home. “Since the pandemic began, humanitarian assistance and mental health needs have increased exponentially,” said Marisol Matamoros from the humanitarian organization Ret International in San José.
“Every day I receive a message saying a friend or family member is ill or has died from COVID-19.” says Leticia (not her real name) a lawyer and human rights activist who fled Nicaragua for Costa Rica in 2018. She has been waiting in San José for her asylum interview for more than two years.
More recently, there has been an increase in cases in high density populated and vulnerable areas of San José where there is a high density of people living in close quarters. Social distancing is impossible in these dwellings in which 60 per cent of the residents are mostly Nicaraguan.
COVID-19’s impact in these areas became visible on 4 July 2020 when a migrant young man arrived in critical condition at a hospital in the capital, without identification or health insurance. He lived in an overcrowded area where many migrants and asylum seekers live and where the virus spreads freely. He died soon afterwards, posthumously testing positive for COVID-19.
Not seeking treatment or seeking it too late is common among people who do not have health insurance. Despite the Costa Rican government’s announcement in March 2020 that any person with COVID-19 symptoms is eligible for medical treatment, this policy is not always implemented, and the fear of deportation means that many migrants do not seek medical care.
“I have had several symptoms related to COVID, but when I went to the public health center, I was told I couldn’t get help because I did not have insurance. I called 911 and they offered to send an ambulance to pick me up. But if an ambulance were to come to where I live, my landlord would evict me and my neighbors would also treat us badly, so I told the ambulance not to come,” says María, a 35-year-old Nicaraguan woman who is in irregular condition in the country and faces stigma and discrimination related to both COVID-19 and being Nicaraguan.
The pandemic and the intensification of discrimination in Costa Rica
While Costa Rica is a diverse country with people who have indigenous, Afro-Caribbean, Chinese and European roots, the national self-image is of a “white” country that is modern, democratic and egalitarian compared to its neighbors, including Nicaragua. Costa Rican prejudice against Nicaraguans has intensified in the past thirty years as their numbers have increased. Nicaraguans also tend to be scapegoated when public services are cut, taxes are raised and unemployment increases, as occurred in 2019 when President Carlos Alvarado instituted austerity measures in response to high government debt.
Leticia, the human rights lawyer seeking asylum, described an incident that occurred soon after she arrived in San José in 2018. “I was told by a “tico”, (a Costa Rican) that if I wanted to rent an apartment it was better if a Costa Rican called the landlord, otherwise they would know by my accent that I am Nicaraguan and would reject me.”
Lucia, the migrant in Puntarenas, has been in Costa Rica for eighteen years. She says “Sometimes ticos say “who’s the girl who cleans” and then when they see me, they call me “una paisita” (derogatory term for a Nicaraguan)– they don’t even call me by my name.” While xenophobia and prejudice against Nicaraguans has become more pronounced since the arrival of COVID-19, targeting of all marginalized groups has intensified during the pandemic. In July 2020, a shelter for indigenous people who tested positive for the virus was set on fire.
Government officials are aware of the degree to which the economy depends on Nicaraguan labor. “It is extremely dangerous that under the current health emergency xenophobic feelings are fueled.” said Rodolfo Solano, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Costa Rica to local media Radio Monumental. “Many of the business and commercial activities in Costa Rica depend on the workforce of Nicaraguans.”
Alice Shackelford, UN Resident Coordinator, echoed this message: “The virus does not choose people by the place where they were born. It is understandable that people would feel fear and uncertainty. Regardless, the spirit of solidarity of this country must prevail.”
Policy and practice in the border zone
The border with Nicaragua has been a zone of concern for the spread of the virus but the Costa Rican government’s actions have raised questions about the harm to potential asylum seekers. When the pandemic began, the government launched a highly publicized “secure borders operation” with an emphasis on the border with Nicaragua. The government proudly announced the number of people rejected at the border, more than 18,000 to date. Human rights groups are concerned that these actions could prevent the entry of those who genuinely need protection.
It is now very difficult for Nicaraguans to request asylum in Costa Rica, as borders are closed, and migration procedures have been suspended. Currently, asylum claims are only processed at official points of entry on the border, not even in San José. The phone line to make appointments for asylum applications has been shut down. The data reveals the impact of these changes. The Migration Authority registered 3,260 asylum claims from Nicaraguans in February and 1,748 in March -the month in which the borders closed-. By April the number dropped to 7 with only 14 in May.
On 29 April, civil society organizations CENDEROS, CEJIL, Colectivo de Derechos Humanos Nicaragua Nunca Más, and Servicio Jesuita para Migrantes issued a statement condemning the threats, intimidation and deportations by Police and Migration authorities towards Nicaraguan families seeking asylum in Upala, a border town. “We express our concern and demand an investigation,” they said. They also expressed the need to respect the right to seek asylum and the non-refoulement principle. The government has made no comment.
In May, there was a significant increase of COVID-19 cases in agricultural companies located in the Northern area of the country, close to Nicaragua´s border, where hundreds of Nicaraguan irregular migrants work and are exploited. These exploitative conditions existed before the pandemic, but representatives of these companies tried to avoid their responsibility by declaring that “the biggest problem is the migration of sick Nicaraguans”.
Due to this outbreak, the Costa Rican Minister of Health, Daniel Salas, declared on 27 May “Currently, the biggest risk for the country is the high level of coronavirus in Nicaragua”. On 9 June the Director of PAHO Dr Clarissa Etienne said, “We are seeing increased transmission around the Nicaraguan border”, areas where migrants work in poor conditions in agriculture and other businesses.
A few weeks later, there was another a COVID-19 outbreak in the construction sector where many Nicaraguans work, a situation that fueled even more discrimination.
There have been contradictions between stated policy and practice regarding migrants since the pandemic began. As stated previously, in March 2020 Costa Rica announced access to healthcare for anyone in the country with symptoms of the virus. Yet on 29 May the Regional Health Director of Los Chiles, a town on the border, issued a directive prohibiting treatment of “undocumented” migrants. It stated that public health workers should immediately call the police and migration authorities when migration documents were not in order.
The reaction from civil society was swift. More than twenty organizations called for the government to “respect the rights of the most vulnerable populations including irregular migrants”. On 11 June the government eliminated the directive and reaffirmed that irregular migrants will receive health services in case of emergency or COVID-19 symptoms.
Returning home: an almost impossible mission
Due to the pandemic, many Nicaraguans in Costa Rica and Panamá decided to return home, including asylum seekers whose life continues to be at-risk. However, when they arrived at the Peñas Blancas border crossing in late July 2020, they fell into a limbo between the two countries.
The Ortega-Murillo regime stated that Nicaraguans are only allowed to return if they provide a negative COVID-19 test. They were expected to pay for the test by themselves, another obstacle. They are not able to enter their own country. Left stuck between two countries, in July 2020 there were many living in the border area without access to water, health care, housing or food. One bathroom could be shared with more than 400 people. COVID-19 prevention measures are impossible to implement.
On 30 July, NGOs and a private hospital in Costa Rica announced they will provide the COVID-19 tests and humanitarian assistance to these stranded Nicaraguans. As of 2 August, 148 Nicaraguans who were stranded at the border for more than two weeks were able to return home. Another 21 who tested positive for the virus have been receiving treatment in tents run by NGOs.
Conclusion: Nicaraguans unprotected and exposed on both sides of the border
Most Nicaraguans interviewed agreed that over time the continued oppression, instability and economic crisis in Nicaragua will give people no choice but to flee — mainly to Costa Rica but possibly to other countries of the region as well. Others said that with the border closed and the Costa Rican economy hurt by the pandemic, many would choose to remain in Nicaragua. There have been reports of worsening exploitation in the conditions of Nicaraguan workers in Costa Rica, which has made some wary.
“Costa Rica is not prepared to handle an inflow of Nicaraguans, nor is there a climate of tolerance for new arrivals. Costa Rica would need assistance to cope and also would need to take steps to combat xenophobia,” commented María Elizondo, co-founder of SOS Nicaragua, a San José based NGO.
Recognizing the potential of a humanitarian crisis, on 11 June, President Alvarado announced that the UN will work with the government of Costa Rica on the northern border on a COVID-19 health plan. In addition, a U.S. Congressman is encouraging the U.N. to send a special envoy to Nicaragua. The reality is that Nicaraguans face oppression on both sides of the border. In Nicaragua they confront political persecution and the dangers of the virus while in Costa Rica their rights to request asylum, work in humane conditions and receive health care are not observed. While civil society organizations and other local initiatives provide some assistance, it is far from sufficient. In the short-term the international community must provide humanitarian assistance and pressure the oppressive Ortega-Murillo government to protect its citizens. In the longer-term, Costa Rica must address the oppression and exploitation faced by Nicaraguans and recognize their important contributions to the economy and society.
* Author bios
Ana-Laura Méndez-Araya has over 12 years of experience working on refugees, migration, human rights, and humanitarian issues mainly in Latin America. She has worked for non-governmental organizations, UN agencies, think-tanks and diplomatic missions. She has conducted and collaborated in research projects about unaccompanied children, children at-risk of displacement, RSD Procedures in Central and North America, the displacement of Nicaraguans to Costa Rica. Ana Laura holds an M.A. in International Relations focusing on Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs from New York University (NYU) where she was a Fulbright fellow and a specialization in Refugee Law, Forced Displacement and Human Rights from the University for Peace. Further information can be found at https://www.linkedin.com/in/analauramendez/
Veena Siddharth has worked extensively in human rights, advocacy, reproductive rights, economic justice and governance. She is now based in Costa Rica. Among the organisations she has worked for are the World Bank, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Oxfam International and Unicef. She has a MSc. in Quantitative Research Methods and Evaluation from University College London (UCL) and a Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard University. Further information can be found at https://www.linkedin.com/in/veenasiddharth2011/
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