COVID-19 Thrusting Nicaraguan Refugees into Hunger, Despair

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – The U.N. refugee agency says tens of thousands of Nicaraguan refugees and asylum-seekers in Costa Rica are going hungry because COVID-19 restrictions have eliminated job opportunities.

More than 81,000 Nicaraguans have sought international protection in Costa Rica from rights violations and political persecution in Nicaragua. Before the pandemic, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reports, most of the refugees and asylum-seekers could find work to support themselves.

This situation has changed dramatically for the worse because of lockdowns and other restrictions imposed to curb the impact of COVID-19. The UNHCR reports more than three-quarters of Nicaragua’s refugee population is going hungry as a direct consequence of these measures.

UNHCR spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo said forcibly displaced Latin Americans largely depend on the informal economy to earn a living. These jobs, she said, have essentially dried up because of COVID-19. She said most of these families now eat only two meals a day.

“Only 59% of refugee families in Costa Rica are reporting steady work-related income streams as of the end of July. And, this is a staggering decrease from 93% before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. So, this now leaves many also at risk of eviction and homelessness. A fifth of Nicaraguan refugees surveyed in Costa Rica said they now do not know where they will live in the next month,” she said.

A recent survey of 21% of Nicaraguan refugees and asylum-seekers indicates at least one member of their households is thinking of returning to Nicaragua because they cannot make a living. Mantoo told VOA more than 3,000 asylum claims in Costa Rica, most from Nicaraguans also have been withdrawn.

“Families are reporting that they are considering these returns back to Nicaragua where maybe what is driving them is this pressing socioeconomic condition-the desperation, the hardship, the poverty that they are enduring …That is just the data that we have and it points as part of the bigger picture that we are seeing-sort of a pressing humanitarian situation there for refugees driving premature returns, but also affecting day-to-day lives,” she said.

Mantoo said the UNHCR is stepping up cash assistance programs throughout Central America to support vulnerable forcibly displaced people. In face of the worsening situation in Costa Rica, she said her agency and its partners are working with the government to support asylum-seekers and refugees who cannot return to Nicaragua.

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