San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
northern triangle Refugees

Costa Rica to host Central Americans seeking asylum in US

The governments of the United States and Costa Rica announced Tuesday that Costa Rica would begin hosting Central American refugees applying for asylum in the United States and other countries as part of a protection transfer arrangement with the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, and the International Organization for Migration.

As many as 200 refugees at a time from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — the so-called Northern Triangle — will be allowed to stay in Costa Rica for up to six months while they are processed for potential asylum in the U.S. or elsewhere, UNHCR chief in Costa Rica Carlos Maldonado told reporters during a news conference at Casa Presidencial in San José on Tuesday. The U.S. State Department announced the agreement in a news release.

Working with the UNHCR and the IOM, the United States will pre-screen “vulnerable applicants” in the region seeking asylum. Applicants in need of immediate protection can then be sent to Costa Rica for processing before traveling to the U.S. or another country.

Pre-screened refugee applicants will be housed near or in San José while they are processed and will receive English classes and information about their destination. All costs associated with the program will be covered by IOM and UNHCR.

Just two weeks ago, the U.S. State Department’s top official on refugee and immigration matters, Anne Richard, told The Tico Times that the Central American refugee program was “still on the drawing board.” The agreement with Costa Rica to house vulnerable applicants is a breakthrough on one of the key issues holding up the program.

One outstanding question is whether six months will be enough time for Central American refugees to be processed for travel to the U.S. Richard said processing refugees for resettlement in the U.S. takes on average 18 to 24 months worldwide.

News of the agreement comes a day before the president of El Salvador, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, arrives in Costa Rica to meet with President Luis Guillermo Solís. Asylum applications from El Salvador make up nearly half of the some 1,500 applications Costa Rica has received so far this year.

The U.S. also announced Tuesday an expansion of a program that allows Central American minors to apply for protection in the U.S. from their home countries. The program, which began in December 2014, allows a parent who is legally in the U.S. to request refugee status for their child living in a Northern Triangle country so that the child can avoid the dangerous journey north alone or with smugglers.

Under the newly-announced expansion, the following categories of people can also be considered for the program when accompanied by a qualifying child: adult children of legal U.S. residents; a biological parent of a qualifying child if the parent is still living in a Northern Triangle country; caregivers of a qualifying child who are relatives of the child’s legal U.S.-resident parents.

Hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Hondurans have fled gang violence and organized crime in their home countries in recent years. Most seek refuge in the U.S. but many have also fled to Costa Rica. The Northern Triangle countries have some of the world’s highest homicide rates and most pervasive gang presence.

According to figures from UNHCR, nearly 150,000 Central Americans are expected to seek asylum in 2016.

The agreement announced Tuesday does not apply to African, Asian and Haitian migrants, who have been traveling through Central America in increasing numbers this year to reach the U.S.

Contact Zach Dyer at

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I was thinking about starting a mafia style gang in Costa Rica to sell protection services. Do you know how I can get the mailing list to these refugees? I could use some Maras or other people with good gang experience–especially if you can find some with teardrop tattoos on their cheeks.

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I’m was an X gang member and fear for my life since I left the gang.
Help me! I’m a refugee and fear for my life.

Let me into costa rica for the next 6 months.
Then I can set up shop here and start business like we do up in the triangle.

Good luck getting control of this once it gets a foot hold.

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Ken Morris

I’m sure it can happen as you say, but I actually know a former gang member from El Salvador who is a refugee in Costa Rica. OK, he tends to drink too much and doesn’t always pay his bills on time, but overall he’s a decent guy. This refugee thing is admittedly tricky and there are pitfalls, but it can be done right and be a benefit to all.

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Natalia Sanabria

Don Guillermo, usted no considera que Costa Rica tiene ya bastantes problemas por ella misma como para importarlos. La inseguridad con la que vivimos, las matanzas a las que estamos ahora expuestos día a día y usted quiere traernos más maras? No le fue suficiente abrirle las puertas en las cárceles y ya vio todos las muertes que hubo gracias a su sabia decisión? Por favor don Guillermo, gobierne para lo que se le nombró pero no nos eche a perder más por favor. No nos haga arrepentirnos más de haberle dado nuestro voto.

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Ken Morris

The issue, I think, are the terms of the deal. These are not potential refugees intending to remain in Costa Rica, but rather migrants who want to go to the US and be processed legally to go there. The US (and others) will also pay the full cost. This creates good jobs for Ticos and otherwise contributes to the economy. It can be a very good deal for Costa Rica, much better than the call centers. However, the risk is that those denied asylum in the US may remain in Costa Rica and place an additional burden on Costa Rica. Costa Rica must negotiate a deal that gives it the resources to address this problem. Thus, this is a situation that depends very much on the exact terms of the deal. It is not though anything like the Cubans or the Africans, who Costa Rica isn’t even paid to handle.

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