Cablegate: A Snapshot of Costa Rica's Refugee Community


DE RUEHSJ #0692/01 2262018
R 142018Z AUG 09




E.O. 12958: N/A

1.(U) Summary: Costa Rica is home to approximately 12,000 refugees,
the largest refugee population in Central America. The vast majority
(roughly 10,000) of Costa Rica's refugees are of Colombian origin,
though there are also Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Peruvian refugees,
among others. Many refugees have found safety and freedom in Costa
Rica, and a number have managed to prosper economically. The
majority of refugees have found work through the help of a few
organizations working on refugee issues in Costa Rica, though some
have faced discrimination due to their refugee status. A new
immigration law passed in August 2009 created a separate division
within the Department of Immigration to deal with refugee issues.
This should improve both the speed and effectiveness of Costa Rican
Immigration's refugee administration. End Summary.

Refugee Community

2. (U) According to the office of the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are approximately 11,923
people recognized by the GOCR as refugees in Costa Rica. Refugees
typically live in urban areas in Costa Rica's central valley and
meld into the local community. The majority of refugees live in the
Desamparados district of San Jose, Alajuela and Heredia. Refugees
have typically sought work in vocational areas, such as auto
mechanics or health and beauty services; they often find work
through family and/or friends already residing in the country. The
Ministry of Labor's Employment Office, working in conjuction with
UNHCR, also assists refugees in finding local employment. Some
refugees have also been able to start their own businesses with the
help of organizations such as Professional Association for the
Promotion of the Poor and at-Risk (APRODE) by qualifying for
microcredit loans.


3. (U) Refugees and those working within the refugee community often
complain of subtle or overt forms of public discrimination.
According to UNHCR, it is often difficult for refugees, who carry
residency cards which clearly state their refugee status, to find
employers willing to hire them. The Israeli Zionist Center of Costa
Rica conducted a poll in 2009 that asked Costa Ricans which of a
wide group of minorities they found to be the most untrustworthy.
Thirty-five percent of those polled stated that they most distrusted
Colombians, double the next-highest group (Nicaraguans). As
one-third of all Colombians in the country are refugees, it is often
difficult to determine whether refugees are discriminated against
because they are refugees, or because they are Colombian.
Adolescents, in particular, face difficulties assimilating into
their new communities.

4. (U) In order to help refugees integrate into their communities
and soften Costa Ricans' feelings towards refugees, UNHCR, along
with a local partner, is conducting an ongoing pro-refugee media
campaign. The campaign focuses on changing opinions towards
refugees, and sensitizing Costa Ricans to refugee issues in the
community. Information about refugees has been posted on
billboards, posters, newspapers, television ads, radio, and other
mediums throughout San Jose and other highly populated areas.

Refugee Response

5. (U) There are a number of local or international organizations
working to address refugee issues in Costa Rica. UNHCR often leads
the local and regional response by working with a number of
different local organizations. One of their primary local partners
is the Association of International Consultants and Advisors (ACAI),
a non-governmental organization. ACAI provides free legal services,
psychological consultation, and job-skills training to refugees.
UNHCR works with APRODE to set up micro-credit funds targeted
towards refugee entrepreneurs. The United Nations Joint Programme
on HIV/AIDS (ONUSIDA) and UNHCR also provide training on HIV
prevention and AIDS. They have trained more than 2,500 people in
health camps over the past year alone.

6. (U) The Costa Rican government also provides medical assistance,
through their social security system, and other benefits to
refugees. The local government of Desamparados (which is home to
one of the highest concentrations of refugees in the country) has
assisted in the establishment of the House of Rights, a center where
refugees, nationals, and migrants can come together and receive help
in diverse areas, for free.

7. (SBU) Additionally, Post works with the refugee community and
their issues, highlighted by the successful implementation of a
number of Ambassador's Fund for Refugees/Julia Taft Fund grants.
The 2008 project created a new computer training center inside of
the House of Rights, which continues to provide internet access,
computer skills training, and other workshops to refugees to improve
their job skills and employment opportunities. APRODE has also had
a 2009 Julia Taft Fund application approved, which will establish a
revolving micro-credit fund for female entrepreneurs who had not
been eligible for other APRODE funds due to the small size of their


8. (U) On August 4, 2009 Costa Rica's Legislative Assembly
unanimously approved a new immigration law. The new law will not go
into effect until six months after publication in the official GOCR
gazette. This law enacts a number of badly needed changes to Costa
Rica's Immigration Department. The refugee application process in
Costa Rica is currently a time-consuming ordeal; the GOCR often
takes 6-8 months to rule on an application and has a current backlog
of 80 cases on appeal (applicants cannot legally work until their
case is approved). This is in part due to the lack of a standing
refugee office within the Immigration Department, which complicates
both funding and capacity building, as immigration officials
frequently rotate responsibilities.

9. (U) The new law should address some of these issues. Chiefly
among these is the creation of a separate office to deal
specifically with refugee issues. This will include the assignment
of specific immigration officials to the refugee office, who will
receive special training in refugee processing procedures. The new
office will also have its own, separate archives, to easier manage
information regarding cases. The law also grants certain additional
protections to refugees and clarifies and strengthens the approval
and appeal process. Finally, the new law removes or lowers some of
the financial costs involved with the refugee application process.


10. (SBU) Costa Rica is a natural harbor for those fleeing
persecution in the Americas. Its long history of political
stability, economic success, and respect for human rights all make
Costa Rica appealing to potential refugees, and we expect the
country to continue to see high numbers of refugees. However,
despite the country's lofty record on human rights, Costa Ricans
themselves are not immune to personal prejudices. As such,
continued work on refugee issues, including continued USG support of
the refugee community remains important. We anticipate that the
implementation of the new immigration law will have a significant
and lasting effect on Costa Rica's administration of the refugee
process. Refugees can, and often do, build a new, better life in
Costa Rica. However, they often need a helping hand to get there.


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