Sunday 2 April 2023

Asylum Seekers are Hitting New Walls in Latin America

Costa Rica is among several countries in the region that have rolled back protections for migrants and asylum seekers as people continue to make their way north in record numbers.

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Q REPORTS (The Progressive Magazine) Asylum seekers in Costa Rica are finding it harder to access what was once one of the region’s most progressive asylum systems after President Rodrigo Chaves issued two decrees to change its application requirements last November.

Merchants sell items on a busy street in San José, Costa Rica. (Photo: Cynthia Flores/World Bank)

“Costa Rica has been very attractive for Central American countries, other Central American countries, to request refuge here because of these [historically high] levels of protection and recognition of rights,” Francisco Madrigal Ballestero, the general manager of the Instituto sobre Migración y Refugio LGBTIQ para Centroamérica (IRCA Casa Abierta), in San José, Costa Rica, tells The Progressive.

“We feel that [the new decree] restricts the possibilities and rights of migrant and refugee-seeking populations,” Madrigal Ballestero says. “These decrees could deny you the possibility of requesting refuge.”

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Madrigal Ballestero suggests that the measures place asylum seekers, especially those who are members of the LGBTQ+ community, at risk—as they do not always know about asylum opportunities upon arrival. Furthermore, the new measures also violate international human rights and refugee conventions, according to experts like Madrigal Ballestero.

Costa Rica’s rollback of protections follows a sharp increase in migrants applying for asylum there. Since 2012, the country has seen applications increase from 900 cases to more than 200,000 at the end of 2022.

Many of these are Cubans, Venezuelans, and migrants from as far as Senegal and Afghanistan, who have come to the country in increasing numbers seeking passage to the United States.

Chaves, a conservative who took office in May 2022 and has been compared to Donald Trump, suggested in the announcement of the policy change that the asylum system is being abused by what he calls “economic migrants.”

“The (immigration agency) tells us that 90 percent or more of the people don’t qualify,” Chaves said, according to the Associated Press. “So we are allowing the good cause of asylum to be abused by hundreds of thousands of people—it’s that easy.”

At the heart of his statement are echoes of anti-immigrant sentiment elsewhere, including in the United States—particularly, that immigrants are taking the jobs of Costa Ricans.

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Among the new requirements is that migrants now must apply for asylum in Costa Rica within a month of arriving. The measures also limit a migrant’s ability to obtain work permits while their application is being approved, an impossible burden for migrants fleeing with few resources.

According to Costa Rican lawyer and legal advisor for IRCA Casa Abierta Mariana Chávez Fernández, the changes have created more uncertainty and complications for migrants and asylum seekers in Costa Rica.

“This raises a series of restrictions that were not there before,” Chávez Fernández tells The Progressive. “A month is too little.”

“All the policies of the countries to the North have affected the situation in Costa Rica somehow; not just the U.S.-Mexico border, but the Mexico-Guatemala border as well. And that has made a lot of people decide to stay longer than they thought.”

She points out that all too often migrants do not immediately know about the options that are available to them. Added to this, the process of applying for asylum often takes months, and the prohibition on obtaining work permits means that migrants will have no income outside of under-the-table work—which could also mean the end of their asylum application.

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There has also been open violence against migrants in Costa Rica, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community. In January 2022, a gay Nicaraguan migrant, Genaro Vega Pérez was burned alive in Costa Rica in what has been called a hate crime. He survived, and a year later there are still efforts to support him through crowdfunding.

“So we see that there are many many intersecting factors that make it more difficult for them to have a dignified life,” Madrigal Ballestero says. “Xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and racism are a pandora’s box.”

And as Madrigal Ballestero points out, the origins of these anti-immigrant policies and changes to the asylum system stem from the United States.

“All the policies of the countries to the North have affected the situation in Costa Rica somehow; not just the U.S.-Mexico border, but the Mexico-Guatemala border as well,” he explains. “And that has made a lot of people decide to stay longer than they thought.”

Measures like these come at a time when migrants have faced increased discrimination across the region—as various heads of state make changes to their border regulations, sometimes at the behest of a U.S. policy agenda.

In addition to Costa Rica, Colombia, Belize, and Ecuador have also implemented new measures that the Biden Administration has referred to as “new regularization or temporary protection policies to provide legal status to hundreds of thousands of migrants.” The new measures follow the agreement that was reached in Los Angeles, California, during the 2022 Summit of the Americas, where countries signed on to the Los Angeles Declaration, which stated the region’s commitment to responding to the current migration crisis.

Guatemala, too, has taken new steps in response to the increase in migration through the region. Among the new measures announced is the implementation of new visa requirements for Dominicans.

This comes after 1,393 Dominican migrants were denied entry in 2022 for failing to comply with immigration requirements, according to the Guatemalan Migration Institute. In 2021, the country had denied entry to 474 Dominicans according to the country’s migration agency, the majority of whom were seeking to reach the United States.

Guatemala’s new entry requirement goes into effect on February 14.

“It is very easy for a person who has economic resources, regardless of nationality, to establish themselves here and open their business,” Madrigal Ballestero says. “The [first] waves of Nicaraguans who came to Costa Rica, who were of a higher economic social status, had no problem settling in Costa Rica. The problem is [for] the poor.”

The opinion expressed here is of the author, Jeff Abbott, an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala, for The Progressive Magazine ( Read the original article here.

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