Myths about Nicaraguan Migrants

By John Perry on September 9, 2021

Advances in health care such as new hospitals and Covid-19 vaccinations keep great numbers from migrating.

According to Reuters, when Daniel Ortega’s government “began arresting presidential contenders,” tens of thousands of people “slipped into exile” in the United States or Costa Rica. In the article, Lost hope: Ortega’s crackdown in Nicaragua stirs fast-growing exodus, Nicaraguan ‘activist’ Jesus Adolfo Tefel says he feared arrest if he stayed in the country. But have people really fled Nicaragua because of the arrests that have taken place in advance of November’s elections, or are they saying they have, for the most obvious reasons?

The Reuters article is classic propaganda, linking things which in practice don’t link up but can be made to appear to. First, of course, migrants claim persecution as their (hoped for) ticket into asylum in the country they are trying to enter. But the only recent arrests in Nicaragua have been of prominent opposition representatives accused of specific violations of laws relating (for example) to the financing of non-profits and the receipt of foreign government funding. The few who have left (like well-known “independent” journalist Carlos Chamorro) are evading these laws. There are plenty of ‘activists’ such as Jesus Adolfo Tefel living normal lives, including ones like him who were given conditional amnesty in June 2019 for crimes committed during the attempted coup in 2018, providing they stay within the law.

Second, it’s clear that migration from Nicaragua to the US has increased from a small trickle to a trickle, but that it is still far lower than migration from neighboring Honduras and Guatemala (not to mention Mexico itself). “Push factors” include the pandemic and its effects on the economy, possible fears of more US sanctions on Nicaragua and the drying up of work in Costa Rica (see below). But much more important are the “pull” factors that drove up migration to the US from many countries at the start of this year: by March, “encounters” of all nationalities at the US southwest border had grown by over 100% in just two months. Labor shortages in the US, the easing of the pandemic and the belief that President Biden will be more lenient with migrants are likely to be the main “pull” factors.

According to Reuters, Costa Rica is “struggling” to process a surge of Nicaraguan refugee applications. Although some 60,000 Nicas have sought asylum in Costa Rica since 2018, more than 80% of these were said by the authorities in 2019 to be longer-term residents trying to regularize their status. That’s why the whole asylum story in Costa Rica is a concocted myth. Nicaragua’s opposition and its allies in Costa Rica make the most of it, not least because money has poured into Costa Rica from the UN and other agencies to help them solve the refugee “crisis” (it received $650 million of UN money in 2019 alone).

A Nicaraguan’s chance of having an asylum application approved in Costa Rica is not high – around 50% were turned down last year – and waiting times are extremely long. An important reason for this is that many of those pleading for asylum have committed crimes, including murder, before they left Nicaragua. At the moment, for example, Nicaraguan officials are seeking the extradition of a man from Masaya who is asking for asylum in Costa Rica because he is accused of the torture and murder of police officer Gabriel Vado in Masaya in July 2018. Many Nicas are deported to Nicaragua for such reasons (more than to any other country). Last year about 190 were deported from Costa Rica while over 26,000 were prevented from entering at the border in the first place.

For decades Costa Rica has had a symbiotic relationship with Nicaragua, depending on it for labor for its tourism, farming and other industries, while Nicaraguans benefit from working in an economy where income per head is five times higher. In any one year, around the same number of Nicas return to Nicaragua from Costa Rica as cross into Costa Rica: in 2018 and 2019, pre-pandemic, there were over 1,600,000 cross-border movements by Nicas going to or from Costa Rica, of which 49% were people returning to Nicaragua, despite the supposed “repression.”

The picture has changed radically since the pandemic, with the near collapse of tourism in Central America being particularly damaging for Costa Rica. The ravages of Covid-19 have hit Costa Rica’s economy and that of its neighbor Panama, worse than Nicaragua’s. Remittances from Nicas living in CR have also fallen sharply compared with those from those living in the US and Europe. That’s why Nicas are returning in greater numbers. Costa Rican statistics on border crossings since October last year show that almost 1,000 more Nicaraguans have left Costa Rica than have entered it. Can we now look forward to a new Reuters headline, “Nicaraguans flee Costa Rica in their hundreds”?

Source: Alliance for Global Justice – NicaNotes