Costa Rica is best known for its vacation beaches and lush rain forests. But recently it has become a thoroughfare for tens of thousands of migrants from South America and elsewhere who are hoping to reach the U.S.
Many are from the Caribbean, but a significant number trekking through the country are Africans and Southeast Asians, and collectively, they are straining Costa Rica’s welcoming reputation.
Migration officer Marvin Rodriguez is on the phone. He’s getting word that authorities are sending two buses carrying 120 migrants that just crossed into Costa Rica on its southern border with Panama.
It’ll take about two hours for them to arrive at this newly erected migrant shelter where he’s stationed, in the small town of Buenos Aires, just north of the border.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” says Rodriguez.
But this is becoming increasingly common in Costa Rica.
Migrants from many countries
Late last year, thousands of Cubans came. They got stuck in Costa Rica when Nicaragua refused to let them continue northward. Then soon after came Haitians, Nigerians, Congolese, and even Kashmiris started coming. Authorities say about 150 migrants arrive every day, though only about 30 can sneak out daily into Nicaragua.
That’s left most migrants stranded at shelters. Migrants like Maria Joseph, who arrived eight days ago with her husband and two daughters.
In broken Spanish, she says her family flew from the Congo to Brazil, then crossed several South American countries by bus, paying off border guards all along the way, then walked eight grueling days through the jungle between Colombia and Panama.
“In Panama these five guys with guns got us, and took everything. Clothes, cellphones, all our money,” says Joseph.
“In Costa Rica, they don’t take from you,” she says. “They just give.”
Mayte Castro Santi smiles when she hears the migrants speak well of the Costa Ricans. She’s one of several local residents cooking two meals a day, washing the bedsheets and handing out donated clothes.
Stirring a huge pot of white rice, she says that “since our grandparents’ time, Costa Ricans have always greeted people as best as we can.”
Lately though, that goodwill is being put to the test.
In just the past four months, more than 6,500 migrants have been registered entering Costa Rica’s southern border. The majority have told officials they are from Congo. But most are believed to be Haitians who were living in Brazil and left when their construction jobs in the run up to the Olympics ended.
With so many migrants coming through, authorities say even if they could determine nationalities, mass detention or deportation is not an option financially or morally.
“A humanitarian challenge”
President Luis Guillermo Solis says his country will not criminalize migration.
“It has to be seen as a humanitarian challenge and this is how we like to think we are handling it,” he says.
Solis spoke at the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank, after a meeting last week with President Obama and Vice President Biden.
The U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica, S. Fitzgerald Haney, says Costa Rica is a model for the world on how to treat refugees.
“We very much appreciate and applaud the government of Costa Rica for everything they are doing, and where we can help we will,” he says.
The U.S. sent tents for 2,400 families and is helping migration officials reduce a backlog of asylum applications. The country is also dealing with a record number of Central Americans, especially from El Salvador, seeking refuge. Starting this month, the U.S. will work with Costa Rica to resettle some of those asylum seekers in the U.S.
While the current work with migrants is admirable, University of Costa Rica social science professor Carlos Sandoval says the country has a mixed record on accepting immigrant groups and long-term resettlement.
Nicaraguans, who arrived here during the tumultuous 1980s and ’90s, still fill the lowest jobs in society and get blamed for nearly all social ills.
“Insecurity, lack of health provisions and the like … you just blame it on the Nicaraguans,” he says. “It is very common, that kind of justification.”
Sandoval worries the newest refugees may suffer the same outcome, especially since there’s no sign their numbers are letting up.
Carlos Granados lives next to one of Costa Rica’s official migrant shelters and has grown tired of the endless traffic.
“It’s great being good people, but there’s a limit,” says Granados. “We have a lot of our own poor people here … and they need help, too.”