San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Refugee Population Grows

The civil war in Colombia waged by political rebels, paramilitary counterinsurgency armies, drug traffickers, and a government backed by U.S. military advisors and wielding crop-eradication equipment has caused growing numbers of emigrants to seek refugee status in neighboring and northern countries, with Costa Rica as a preferred destination.

At a recent conference in San José, Jorge Cardona, senior editor of El Espectador, one of Colombia s leading liberal dailies, painted a harrowing portrait of 11 million homeless people and a poverty rate of 67%, a misery machine that has churned out 180,000 refugees. According to Cardona, the conflict has the potential to spill across borders and affect the entire continent if the rest of Latin America does not respond appropriately.

The conference, which focused on the Colombian conflict and its effects on Costa Rica, was sponsored by the U.N. High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and the Costa Rican Journalists Association and took place last month.

Costa Rican immigration officials were inundated by a wave of Colombians refugee status applications that began in 2000; they had to restructure the department to handle the paperwork. While 88 Colombians applied for refugee status in 1999, 1,459 applied in 2000 and 5,018 applied in 2001. From 2000-2004, 12,891 Colombians have applied; about half were accepted. During the same period, only 1,091 non-Colombians applied for refugee status here.

According to the UNHCR in Costa Rica, 90% of refugees here are Colombian, five percent are Cuban and the rest are from dozens of other countries.

Immigration figures for this year are not available, but UNHCR spokesman Giovanni Monge estimates there are approximately 10,000 Colombian refugees in Costa Rica. This country is fourth on the list of those that take Colombian refugees.

The nation receiving the largest number is Colombia s western neighbor Ecuador, while the second and third are Canada and the United States, in that order.

Ecuador received 500 Colombian refugees in one weekend this month, all from Colombia s southern Putumayo and Nariño regions, representing the biggest such influx this year, according to a UNHCR statement. The UNHCR has declared it is very concerned about the situation in those regions of Colombia, where armed struggle continues.

THE Colombian conflict does not just involve Colombia. It is a Latin American conflict, Cardona said.

The struggle, which Cardona attributes almost entirely to drug trafficking, could produce a domino effect of violence that might ripple toward nearby countries such as Panama, Ecuador or Costa Rica, he added.

When conflict erupted in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the rest of the continent of Europe stepped up to put out the fire, according to Cardona, an attitude that Latin America has not mimicked in Colombia s case.

Colombia will not come out of this story alone, he said, explaining that only solidarity with neighboring countries which could mean taking in refugees and assistance from international organizations will help resolve the only armed conflict that persists in the Western Hemisphere.

THE current violence in Colombia has a precedent, Cardona explained.

In the 20th century, the country was ransacked by eight civil wars and constitutional instability that led to the formation of nine different constitutions. The political division between liberals and conservatives became the source of an armed struggle that trailed Colombia into the next century.

A period of intense violence, known as the Violence of the 40s and 50s, when political opponents settled their arguments with guns and bombs, beleaguered the country into the 1960s, when the communist- hunting United States pressured the Colombian government to act against the liberals, Cardona said.

Instead of curbing the violence, the pressure intensified it, and at the same time a new group emerged in Colombia: drug traffickers.

With ports on two oceans and a roadless border with Panama, the country s geography has boosted the success of drug trafficking, Colombia s biggest problem today.

The day drug trafficking stops in Colombia, the conflict will be over, Cardona said.

BY receiving large numbers of Colombian refugees, Costa Rica is reprising a role it has played for years. Refugees have sought protection here in waves corresponding to conflicts in the region throughout the last three decades. The country opened its doors to families from the southern tip of South America in the late 1970s, then to its Central American neighbors in the 1980s during the civil wars that tore the isthmus apart. The relatively peaceful 1990s saw a voluntary repatriation movement in which Costa Rica encouraged its refugee population to return to its respective countries.

The new millennium ushered in a new wave of immigrants, this time from Colombia.

The number of requests (for refugee status) surprised Costa Rica. It was impossible to process all of them there was a wait of up to a year for processing, while now they are handled within a month, UNHCR spokesman Monge said.

JACQUELINE Caldas, her husband and two children were among the first Colombians to enter Costa Rica in 2000. They left behind the tumult of their native Cali, Colombia and flew to San José.

We were looking for a bit more social tranquility, a place where you could work, invest, Caldas told The Tico Times.

Seven months after their arrival, Caldas and her family obtained refugee status in Costa Rica, and the 41-year-old preschool teacher has since sought ways to contribute to others in her situation and to the country that took her in.

Next month, she will begin a daycare service in a San José suburb for the children of other refugees while their parents work. The U.S. Embassy funds the program.

We have been well-received and feel very grateful (to Costa Rica). We were not invited here, but having so many doors open for you is something you must feel grateful for, she said.

Statistically speaking, Caldas is representative of most Colombian refugees.

They distinguish themselves from many other immigrant populations with their medium to high levels of education and surprising aptitude to generate businesses and work late into the night and early morning, Monge said.

Nearly all arrive by air, testifying to their level of disposable income, although recently a small number have taken advantage of the lack of a visa requirement in Panama to enter Costa Rica by land without a Costa Rican visa. The UNHCR processes their applications for refugee status as it would any other application, Monge said, and there are no documented cases of border officials rejecting a refugee-status-seeker at the border without allowing for the proper processing of the request.

About 70% of Colombian refugees in Costa Rica are in the economically productive age range of 25-50, 70% live in San José, and 40% are married.

About half come to Costa Rica for its peace, safety and proximity to Colombia; the country also has obvious appeal for Spanish-speakers when compared to the United States or Canada.

In spite of its tight budget, the UNHCR maintains close relationships with the 14,000 refugees here from around the world, safeguarding their rights to humane treatment and educating the community about their plight. For more information on its work, call 234-2021 (both English and Spanish available).

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