At the end of 2002, Costa Rica hosted 12,750 refugees and asylum seekers, including 7,600 Colombians, 2,700 Nicaraguans, 1,100 Cubans, 800 Salvadorans, 200 Peruvians, 150 Guatemalans, and 200 persons from 25 other countries. Some 4,600 of the refugees were newly recognized during 2002 – a large majority, 4,500, were Colombians, while about 100 were of various other nationalities. Another 20,000 to 50,000 Colombians were living in Costa Rica in refugee-like circumstances.

Costa Rica is party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and has written a non-refoulement provision into its constitution. The government's Migration Department for Refugees, located within the office of the Director General for Migration and Foreigners, determines asylum claims under the supervision of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Costa Rica generally grants refugees the same rights as citizens, including the right to work and access to social services, education, and health care. They are allowed to apply for permanent residence after two years. UNHCR provides refugees legal, economic, social, and psychological assistance through a local non-governmental implementing agency.

A majority of the refugees in Costa Rica are people of urban, middle-class backgrounds and live in the country's largest cities. Although refugees are entitled to work, the unemployment rate among them remains high. Many employers do not know that they can legally employ refugees.


Most of the 7,600 Colombian refugees in Costa Rica fled there since 1999. A large majority, 4,500, were newly recognized in 2002 (more than half of those recognized in 2002 had arrived in 2001 or earlier, however). In 2002, Costa Rica approved 58 percent of the asylum claims it adjudicated from Colombia. Most of the more than 3,200 Colombians denied asylum in 2002 remained in Costa Rica without documentation.

Colombian refugees generally adjust well to life in Costa Rica, but according to El Productor, a local non-governmental organization, some face psychological problems that arise from trauma suffered in Colombia.

On April 15, Costa Rica reinstated for all Colombians entering the country a visa requirement that it had abolished in 1972. The move closed one of the few remaining avenues of escape remaining to Colombians with sufficient resources to fly out of the country. Nevertheless, the number of Colombians who filed asylum applications in Costa Rica continued to increase in 2002 (the number has climbed every year since 1999). UNHCR also reported a three-fold increase in the number of applications for assistance with family reunifications in 2002.

Local sources estimate that some 20,000 to 50,000 Colombians may have gone to Costa Rica to escape the violence in Colombia, but did not seek asylum. The U.S. Committee for Refugees considers them to be in refugee-like circumstances.

Other Refugees

Most of the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran refugees in Costa Rica have been in the country for many years, but have not applied for permanent residence. On four occasions since the early 1990s, Costa Rica has declared amnesties that have permitted more than 150,000 undocumented persons, mostly Nicaraguans, to obtain legal residence.

Many of the non-Latin American refugees arrived in Costa Rica by accident, having paid traffickers to take them to the United States. Largely because of language barriers, many of these refugees have difficulty finding work and surviving locally. Accordingly, UNHCR often extends financial assistance to them beyond its usual three-month limit.


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