San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Refugees’ Journey Far From Finished

The portrait picture of 25-year-old Teklehaymanot Habtemariam sent to The Tico Times by a concerned cousin looks nothing like the confused man pushed to the front of a jostling crowd in San José’s immigrant detention center. But fellow detainees insist that it is him, as does the clerk’s register, despite inconsistencies in the spelling.

Spelling mistakes, however, can be forgiven, bearing in mind members of the staff at Costa Rica’s one-and-only immigration detention center are not used to dealing with refugees from Eritrea, or at least they weren’t until June of this year.

In fact, personnel at the holding pen, with a capacity of 45 people, in Hatillo, southwest of San José, are not used to dealing with large numbers of illegal immigrants at all. So, with current occupation levels pushing 100 detainees, tensions are beginning to fray.

One can also forgive the fact that Habtemariam no longer looks like the bright-eyed, well-kempt young man in the picture, considering he has spent the last four months traveling across Africa and the Atlantic, only to be captured on the last leg of his clandestine journey to “freedom” aboard an ill-equipped and faulty motorboat rescued off the coast of Limón on Sept. 13.

“I was imprisoned in Africa’s hottest jail and beaten for refusing to join the national army,” Habtemariam said. “I didn’t want to fight for the dictatorship. My father and brother were already fighting, so, as my family’s breadwinner, I should not have had to go.”

He said that, after three years of being forced to fight with the army, he escaped on foot and scampered across the border to Ethiopia, through to Sudan, into Kenya, Tanzania and down into South Africa, adding that the journey took two months. He said he then paid a South African agent $2,500 for a trip to any Central American country.

The boat, aboard which Habtemariam and 53 other illegal immigrants from Somalia, Eritrea and Nepal were discovered, is the third of its kind to have been found in Costa Rican waters this year. It’s a perplexing and worrying statistic for immigration officials, bearing in mind Costa Rica is the only Central American country with a policy of refugee detention, in what is becoming an increasingly inadequate facility.

Costa Rican Immigration Administration Director Mario Zamora said that it is perhaps no coincidence that the European Union has recently tightened regulations for immigrants entering Europe.

“It is unlikely that these immigrants were destined for Costa Rica, but rather for the United States. If they can’t get to Europe, North America is considered the next best option.

“The group of immigrants captured in July was told by their Colombian traffickers that they had actually reached America, and were brought ashore, only to find they were in (the Caribbean port city of) Limón.”

From what immigration officials can gather, the traditional route for immigrants is across the Atlantic Ocean from South Africa via cargo ship. The ship takes them as far as Brazil, where they make their way across to Colombia. They then leave on smaller boats from Colombia and head toward North America.

The Colombian traffickers, or coyotes, were arrested with each of the boats rescued. They each face up to four years in prison.

Referring to the final journey aboard the motorboat with the three Colombians, 26-year-old Bhagawan Jung Rana, from the Gurkha district of Nepal, said, “The Colombians didn’t speak any English, so we couldn’t really talk with them.”

He said the two-engine boat, about 15 meters long, had no roof, but the Colombians gave them apples, bananas, biscuits and juice until supplies were depleted.

“The journey was only meant to take about five days,” he continued, “but we got lost for two days and things started to get really bad. People were crying. Eventually we found the coast but then the engines started to have problems, so we managed to signal to police, who rescued us. Eight people were taken to hospital because of sunburn and drinking seawater.

“It was hell, but you forget all that once you have freedom, which is why we are praying we will get out of this jail soon. Jung Rana said that his dream is to stay in Costa Rica, learn Spanish and find work so that he can bring his wife, who is in the United States.

“We are not terrorists and we should not be locked up like dogs,” he said. “We just want freedom.”

In a bid to reduce capacity and ease living conditions at the center, up to 35 immigrants from the first two boats that arrived in June and July have been granted temporary asylum and are allowed to leave.

The majority return for the free meals of rice and beans served three times per day, and then again at night for a place to sleep. Beds, however, are becoming increasingly hard to find as more and more of them are broken or set afire as protests against conditions in the center.

Eight women, who are among the 100 detainees, are currently being held at a nearby hostel.

“It’s often said that we are crazy for detaining and paying costs of ¢15,000 per immigrant when they had no intention of staying in Costa Rica in the first place,” said Zamora. “What we must remember, though, is that if we don’t take responsibility for these people, then they become targets for local criminals and can get involved in drug and prostitution rackets within Costa Rica. That is something we don’t want.”

Having spent three weeks behind the bars, the remaining 54 immigrants are expected to begin the interview process soon.

“Normally when an immigrant is found with no papers, we contact their embassy to confirm their details,” Zamora said. “The problem we face with these guys is that contacting their embassies isn’t that easy.”

He said that Eritrea, for example, only has an embassy in Tel Avivi, in Israel, and diplomatic representation in New York, adding that contacts are most often unable to confirm that the person is actually from Eritrea because there is no national registry.

“On top of that, it is not enough for an immigrant seeking asylum to just say that he faces religious, political or ethnic persecution,” Zamora continued.“He must be able to prove it, through affiliation to a political party or something like that.

“The immigrants are frustrated, but it takes time to interview them all and then filter and analyze the information to try and establish the truth. For all we know, there could be a trafficker among the group.”

So, the news that Habteramian is alive and well will no doubt come as some relief to the cousin who sent the picture and wrote to The Tico Times from WashingtonD.C., where he lives under political asylum, hoping the newspaper could shed some light on the situation.

But, in the words of Habtemariam himself, “I am still not free.”


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