San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

World Refugee Day: A Call for Reflection

Costa Rica hosts the second-largest number of refugees of all countries in Latin America, and a survey released by Universidad Nacional (UNA) in anticipation of World Refugee Day Tuesday suggests nearly a third of Costa Ricans prefer that these foreigners keep their distance.

The study, conducted by UNA’s Institute of Social Studies in Population (IDESPO) in March and April, shows 30.4% of 600 people polled consider it best that Costa Ricans and Colombians, who form the largest refugee population in the country, live separately without mixing together much.

This suggests an underlying sentiment of discrimination in Costa Rica, according to Agni Castro, the country’s representative of the U.N. High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR).

“In the case of Costa Rica, we cannot say there is no xenophobia,” Castro told The Tico Times, explaining that it exists in the form of “questioning the presence of others in the country.”

Castro, who said World Refugee Day is not a motive for celebration, but a day that calls for reflection, highlighted the importance of distinguishing between immigrants and refugees, and understanding the plights of both.

Although a refugee is always an immigrant, not all immigrants are refugees, explained UNHCR spokesman Giovanni Monge. Many migrants travel in search of improved economic welfare. A refugee, however, abandons his or her country a victim of persecution.

The 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons defines refugees as people who flee their countries for persecution related to race, religion, nationality, membership of a political or social group, or those unable to return to their country because of fears related to any of the above. In some parts of the world, gender is also a factor, Castro explained.

“A refugee is a victim…people need to understand that a refugee is not like the average immigrant – which is not to say that immigrants leave their countries happily – their dimensions are different,” Castro said.


Changing Erroneous Perceptions

The apparent confusion regarding immigrants and refugees is evident in the IDESPO survey, released June 14.

For example, Nicaraguans make up 76% of Costa Rica’s immigrant population, but only a fraction of its refugees. However, 43% of those interviewed erroneously said the largest refugee group in the country comes from Nicaragua when in fact, more than two-thirds (77%) of refugees here are from Colombia.

Of 13,000 refugees living in Costa Rica, 10,000 are Colombians driven here by the social unrest and civil war waged by political rebels and drug traffickers, among other groups, that has plagued the country in recent years (TT, Dec. 16, 2005). The remaining 3,000 come from Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti, Peru, and the Balkan Peninsula in Europe, among other countries, Castro said.

Most Colombian refugees flood into their neighboring Ecuador, the Latin American country that hosts the largest number of refugees of this nationality.

However, many are drawn to Costa Rica, a country considered by many South Americans to be an ideal democracy, according to Castro.

The wave of Colombian applications for refugee status in Costa Rica began in 2000, when Immigration handled 1,459 applications.

By the following year, 5,018 applications were received. In total, between 2000-2004, 12,891 Colombians applied, and approximately half of them gained acceptance (TT, Dec. 16, 2005).

UNHCR spokesman Monge explained that in 2000-2001, Colombia experienced an “urbanization” of its armed conflict, when violent confrontations spread from rural areas to cities such as Bogotá, Medellín and Cali.

Because of this, most Colombian refugees in Costa Rica are middle class urbanites, who migrated by plane – a profile that breaks with the stereotype of poverty-stricken, bedraggled refugees.

Immigration director Mario Zamora explained that to obtain refugee status, immigrants must prove they are victims of persecution.

Many refugees remain in the country 10-15 years before returning home; others apply for permanent residency here, Castro explained.

“Their children grow roots here, and it becomes very difficult for them to leave – they adopt Costa Rican traditions, food… their land becomes Costa Rica,” he said.


Refugee Day Activities

To commemorate World Refugee Day, established by the U.N. General Assembly in 2000, last Sunday’s mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral in San José was dedicated to refugees, and a “Concert of Hope” Wednesday drew approximately 200 diplomats, students and refugees to the National Theater.

Today, the University of Costa Rica (UCR) will host a daylong Refugee Micro-business Fair in front of the Social Sciences Faculty Building, featuring stands with food, clothing, artwork and services offered by dozens of refugees living in Costa Rica. For more info, call Cindy Centeno at Edilex at 253-5518 or 384-6273.



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