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Refugees Seek New Life Here

FLEEING extortion, death threats, war and politicaloppression, thousands of refugees have crossed Costa Rica’sborders following rumors of jobs and the rule of law.Most of them are not starving, ragged indigents the word“refugee” might conjure – they arrive by plane, with theirfamilies and possessions in tow, accustomed to middle-classlifestyles.More than 60% of refugees in Costa Rica are Colombiansseeking a respite from the 40-year civil war and local gang rulethat pervades many of the country’s villages.“We were looking for peace in this country,” Colombianrefugee Martha Lucía Nieto said. “It was not fair to our childrento raise them in a country with so much violence and certaintypes of injustice.”There, she said, “the mistakes are made on top, but the people pay.”Nieto has had refugee status for threeand a half years. In her country she workedas an accountant, but after arriving herefound her credentials aren’t compatiblewith Costa Rican firms.Only five days after arriving, she metother Colombian refugees who turned heron to arts and crafts.“It’s a way to make a living withoutleaving my children alone. They takecourses in arts and crafts and help with thebusiness,” she said.OTHERS entering the country are notso fortunate. Employers do not always recognizethe official identification cardissued to refugees, and are reluctant to hirepeople who might not be authorized towork.In that capacity and others, there ishelp from the United Nations. The U.N.High Commission for Refugees(UNHCR) assists the refugee populationwith legal advice, economic aid andcounseling services.To combat ignorance of the ID cards,the UNHCR struck a deal with theMinistry of Labor in August of last yearand began teaching refugee labor rights toemployers at the biggest businesses in thecountry.FOR assistance on the refugees’ end,the UNHCR enlisted the help of theUniversity of Costa Rica. Undergraduatestudents in their last year of law studies,economics, psychology, business administrationand other disciplines advise newcomersin the legalities of living in a newcountry and starting small businesses, andalso provide moral support.A key aspect of that program is businessmanagement workshops and microcreditsfor entrepreneurs. The average loanis $1,000 and is accompanied with trainingand advice from student specialists.“It’s reciprocal aid,” said MelissaSalas, UNHCR project assistant. “It givesthe refugees fast help, whereas other helptakes much longer and could cost more,and the students see the plight of therefugees, and experience it first hand.” Theprogram also helps students complete theirgraduation requirements: each must complete300 hours of community servicebefore they see their degrees.COSTA Rica receives more refugeesthan its Central American neighbors. Lastyear, there were 13,508 refugees in thecountry, more than 8,000 of themColombian and more than 2,600Nicaraguan. Cubans made up the thirdlargest group, representing more than1,100.An average of 1,600 to 2,000 peopleapply for refugee status in the country eachyear, and 50-60% are accepted. So far thisyear, the Department of Immigration hasreceived 735 applications, 71% fromColombians and the rest from countries asdiverse as Eritrea, Haiti, Venezuela andUkraine. About 40% of them have beenapproved.No country is given a preference andall applications are handled equallyaccording to international refugee law,said Immigration Director Marco Badilla.The former policy granted naturalizedcitizen status to refugees who had beenhere for two years or more, but a changelast year made the process more difficult.A family from the United States wasgranted refugee status in the past, but itstopped checking in with Immigration twoyears ago and did not renew its documents.Details were not available.REFUGEE status breeds labor discrimination,according to Colombianrefugee Mario Montoya. About five yearsago he escaped his country hounded bydeath threats for resisting the payment of“protection” fees to a local militia group inthe landlocked town of Pereira.An artisan, like Nieto, Montoya says hesuffers the animosity of Costa Rican artisanswho don’t like the foreign competition.“Refugees don’t have the same rights asTicos,” he said at a celebration Saturday inSan José’s La Sabana Park to commemorateWorld Refugee Day. He says he feelsexcluded from artisans’ associations, fairsand public gatherings where table space issometimes a commodity for the unionizedand patently Costa Rican.“The change in the law hurt us greatly,”he said.TO help others better understand theplights of refugees, a photo show and filmfestival have been organized in collaborationof the UNHCR.The lives and stories of refugees arefeatured in a photography exhibition at theSupreme Elections Tribunal, across fromthe National Park in San José, until July 9,and shown in a cycle of films at ElSemáforo, in San Pedro east of the capital,every hour on the hour from 2-9 p.m. dailyuntil July 4.For more movie info, call 253-9126.


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