Refugee Work in Costa Rica

As a student of the Social Work with Latinos/as Certificate Program, I have had the immense opportunity to spend the past week here in San Jose, exploring the world of social work in Costa Rica. We are framing our experience through the work of Paulo Freire and his concepts of engaging in dialogue and praxis: action paired with reflection. Each day we’ve had the opportunity to travel to different agencies and dialogue with social workers to better understand the social context here in Costa Rica, which often offers parallels to our own in the United States. For me, a highlight was today’s visit to La Agencia de la ONU para los Refugiados (ACNUR), better known stateside as  UNHCR: the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Like many in our program, I have a special interest in working with refugees and will be interning this year at Lutheran Family Services, a refugee resettlement agency in Denver. Costa Rica is relatively small country compared to the United States, and its refugee statistics reflect this reality. During our visit today we learned that in 2015, ACNUR counted 3,600 refugees living in Costa Rica (this excludes people whose legal status has changed, people who entered as refugees and left, or have since passed away, etc.) and in the same year they received 2,203 new applications for refugee status. In comparison, in fiscal year 2016, the US expects to resettle 85,000 refugees from around the the world. Further, Costa Rica primarily accepts refugees and asylum seekers from neighboring countries. In the aforementioned inquiry, 70% of refugees living in Costa Rica were Colombian. The US resettles refugees from all over the world, with the highest numbers in Denver at least, coming from countries such as Myanmar (Burma) and Bhutan/Nepal. Refugees resettling in Costa Rica from neighboring countries do not face the significant linguistic and cultural differences that confront most refugees resettling in the United States.


ACNUR works in Costa Rica to protect the human rights of refugees and facilitate their local integration. Beyond this, they promote sociocultural integration through media campaigns directed at Costa Ricans, commonly referred to as Ticos/as. Given the political climate of xenophobia that has in part been directed toward refugees over the past year or so in the US (for example Governors moving to block Syrians from resettling in their states)  I appreciated these campaigns as an integration strategy. The campaign “Ser refugiado es como ser Tico” (roughly translated as refugees are Costa Rican) highlights that we all have rights and responsibilities. As part of the campaign, a video shows nine Costa Ricans and one refugee standing together in a group. Another average Costa Rican then comes in and attempts to identify the refugee. Of course, all were unsuccessful.  A similar campaign entitled “Nadie elige ser refugiado” (No one chooses to be a refugee) attempts to humanize refugees to the Costa Rican population by demonstrating the common emotional experiences we all share. Both of these campaigns seem effective and ACNUR is doing great work. I can’t help but wonder if Costa Rica, a small country with a refugee population relatively similar in language and culture to its own, is working so hard to reach out to its native population around accepting refugees, why aren’t we doing more of the same in the US?


One thought on “Refugee Work in Costa Rica

  1. Lorena Gaibor

    Well done Heidi. You do a great job in comparing and contrasting the way that Costa Rica is handling their refugee integration with that of the US.

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