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Policy on Refugees and Integration in Costa Rica



The problem of the refugee originates as a peculiarly twentieth century phenomenon. The displacement of peoples from the very borders that delineate states presented a historical challenge that threatened the integrity and the essence of the latter. As the philosopher Giorgio Agamben abstracts the pertinence of this problem: “Every time refugees no longer represent individual cases but rather a mass phenomenon (as happened between the two wars, and has happened again now), both these organizations and the single states have proven, despite the solemn evocations of the inalienable rights of man, to be absolutely incapable not only of resolving the problem but also simply of dealing with it adequately.”[1] For Agamben, this inadequacy of the treatment of the refugee problem, despite the international consensus on the existence of the human rights of the refugee, is intimately tied to the theoretical shortcomings of the notion of the Nation-State itself; there is a consistent rupture in the functionality of the Nation State when confronted with the anomaly of the refugee, i.e., when a subject is separated from his/her state, this subject becomes a “disturbing remainder” that other states find it difficult to account for. Thus, insofar as the refugee denotes a certain failure of the Nation State to protect its citizens/non-citizens, the case of the refugee denotes the limit of the State.

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Nevertheless, despite the tension between the notions of the refugee and the state that ground their relationship, there is an attentiveness to this problematic (evinced in Agamben’s own remark), demonstrated by the general consciousness of the existence of the refugee. Hence, regardless of any discerned policy inadequacies, there still exists a concerted effort to address the problem. The success of various refugee policies certainly may be evaluated, e.g., as with Agamben’s negative evaluation. In the case of Costa Rica, its treatments of the refugee crises that began in 1980s Central America was an example of some moderate successes, or at least, the desired mobilization of a state’s capabilities via governmental policy towards the refugee cause. However, this mobilization encountered its own distinct problems, over-determined (following Agamben’s abstraction of the problem) by the irregular status of the refugee him/herself.

The successes and failures of Costa Rica’s refugee policy is a particularly significant case study for numerous reasons. To the degree that there was a concerted effort from the Costa Rican officials to alleviate the refugee crisis, the shortcomings relate not to Costa Rica’s negligence of this crisis (thusly indicating the direction of an evaluation of this policy in terms of a general apathy on the part of Costa Rica), but the opposite: it is this very effort that provides a compelling case for an analysis of a refugee policy in terms of its affectivity and its limits. That is, Costa Rica’s attempt to rectify their refugee problem, rather than ignore it or deal with it in a manner that undermines the notions of the “rights of man”, provides an excellent paradigmatic case for the possible indexing of refugee policy.

It is because of this very commitment to alleviating the problem that Costa Rica, despite any subsequent further critiques regarding the details of their refugee policy, is recognized by the international community as having advanced a fairly successful policy in regards to refugees. As Tanya Bysok notes “Costa Rica is often cited as a model for refugee settlement.”[2] However, this is not to suggest that the Costa Rican approach is flawless. Whilst some policies of the Costa Ricans have been recognized as effective by social scientists, this praise does not diminish the evident gaps in the Costa Rican policy. In this paper we shall examine the Costa Rican treatment of the refugee and attempt to understand how the refugee was integrated/or non-integrated into Costa Rican society. This analysis will be concerned with Costa Rica’s approach; however, whilst there was a clear Costa Rican governmental policy, a significant factor in the Costa Rican case is the large presence of foreign organizations that were encouraged to participate in a possible refugee solution. Thus, because of the Costa Rican openness to a diversity of aid organizations and volunteers offering support, the qualitative analysis of the success/failures of the Costa Rican approach cannot merely be attributed to the Costa Rican government itself. Whilst this encouragement of international participation may be logically viewed as an autonomous gesture of the Costa Rican government, it can also be construed as Costa Rica’s self-acknowledgement of having been fundamentally overstretched in terms of its capabilities to handle the problem.

Secondly, this analysis shall be supplemented with an anonymous questionnaire of former refugees in Costa Rica, in order to introduce a non-theoretical personal discourse within the parameters of our text. The method of the questionnaire is placed into the paper to act as a balancing point with the theoretical evaluation. The emphasis on the notion of testimony, a form of empiricism all its own, forwards an account of the Costa Rican policy that evaluates the country’s treatment of refugees from a theoretical standpoint, while also acknowledging the power and significance of such a testimony.


The genesis of Costa Rica’s refugee problem may be preliminarily abstracted as a matter of geopolitical positioning. Costa Rica occupied a hazardous place within Central America in the 1980s. The relative stability of Costa Rica was contrasted by the neighboring conflicts in El Salvador, Panama, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras: The 1980s evinced a certain explosion of such geopolitical and ideological tensions in Central America, from which Costa Rica was spared. As Martha Honey notes, the Costa Rica of the 1980s “appeared to be an oasis of tranquility”[3] It is this status of a certain “oasis” in Central America, that evidently yielded Costa Rica’s refugee problem: as a stable nation, it represented the “destination of choice” for refugees seeking to avoid war in their native lands. Costa Rica’s stability as a source for refugees has continued in the time period since the beginning of the 1980s. Yet the refugee that Costa Rica encounters now is substantially different: “Refugees coming into Costa Rica today tend no longer to be from Central America but instead the vast majority are from Colombia. Many are middle-class, urban professionals.”[4] Thus, by no means is the refugee in Costa Rica a homogeneous figure. The wars across Central America in the 1980s that led to such displacement are no longer a significant factor in present Costa Rican refugee policy.

The Costa Rican encounter with the phenomenon of the refugee begins in 1980 with increasing hostilities in the neighboring country of El Salvador. The immediate reaction of Costa Rica’s treatment of this refugee influx distinguished itself from other nations such as Honduras. Whilst Honduras’ policy favored the internment of the Salvadorian refugees in camps, Costa Rica from the outset emphasized the process of making the refugee self-sufficient; they sought to sever any dependency of the refugee on the state apparatus itself, while simultaneously integrating the refugee into Costa Rican society. These two approaches immediately evince a lucid difference in treatment. In the case of Honduras, this treatment may be viewed as an isolationist approach, insofar as the site of the camp becomes the home of the refugee – it does not represent a zone of inclusion, but rather one of suspension – moreover, it is an implicit acknowledgment of Honduras’ government inability to deal with the phenomenon of the refugee, placing the refugee in a certain no-mans land, as it waits for the conflict in the home country to cease. In contrast, the Costa Rican emphasis on autonomy and self-sufficiency denotes the acceptance of the refugee immediately into its boundaries.

We can abstract this difference in terms of a synchronous thinking and a diachronous thinking. In the case of Costa Rica, the policy does not introduce the phenomenon of two times, i.e., waiting for the war to stop – rather, the interruption of the refugee experience is directly addressed, through a minimization of this interruption that is a policy of refugee inclusion in Costa Rica. On the other hand, in the Honduran approach, two times are articulated, a wartime and a non-war time. There is no possible mediation between the times; there is only a case of transition and thus, a passivity on the part of the government that is then transferred to the refugee him/herself – this interruption that is the refugee “event” determines the entire Honduran policy. In essence, Costa Rica attempted to establish the continuity of the refugees’ life, allowing for the possibility of a normalcy to remain in the face of a crisis.

Such initial successes of the Costa Rican programme may be attributed to a certain history of human rights discourse that emerges in the country, i.e., that Costa Rica was conducive to internationalism in its support of UN programmes and its own creation of international approaches. This historiographical element is significant to understanding the immediate difference of Costa Rica from its neighbors, as it stresses a historical Costa Rican commitment to human rights. As Alison Brysk notes, “Costa Rica qualifies as a “global good Samaritan” because its record of human rights promotion is enduring and multifaceted, and it makes a meaningful contribution to globally significant initiatives.”[5] Hence, Costa Rica’s Good Samaritan status is derived from its fidelity to such initiatives on both a regional and global level. Among its contributions, Costa Rica was involved in the peace negotiations that ended three regional civil wars, while also functioning as the seat for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS). On the international level, Costa Rica was involved with international organizations such as serving at the initial prepatory conference for the founding of the United Nations, while also initiating the UN Childern’s Fund.

These historical contributions of Costa Rica may be construed as establishing a certain tradition within Costa Rica that made it more receptive to the specific demands of the refugee influxes that began in the 1980s. Thus, from an ideological perspective, there was nothing in the Costa Rican state ideology that would be adverse to the refugee; rather, the ideology was committed to human rights from its outset.

This tradition may help to understand the initial successes of the Costa Rican programme. In the initial stages of the refugee problem in the 1980s, because of such an international tradition of Costa Rican policy, there was no shortage in the country of foreign and international refugee organizations that participated in the alleviation of the crisis. As Basok summarizes these contributions: “A number of government and voluntary agencies have participated in refugee settlement [in Costa Rica]. They include local branches of such international organizations as Caritas, the Episcopalian church, and the YMCA. In addition, refugees themselves formed a number of voluntary organizations in the hope of assisting their compatriots. Apart from providing emergency aid to refugees, the UNHCR has also financed most of the refugee urban projects. Financial assistance has been provided by other international NGOS as well.”[6] The plurality of non-governmental actors demonstrated a Costa Rican openness to the refugee crisis. Moreover, the possibility of refugees themselves forming aid organizations demonstrated a certain autonomy of the refugee within Costa Rica; despite the loss of nationality that is the refugee displacement, the refugees were granted a freedom to organize and assemble regardless of their anomalous status.

These international organizations were also complimented by Costa Rica’s own approach, which has been termed as the “durable solution” model, emphasizing integration of refugees into the country of asylum. As an unpublished UNHCR document describes this durable solution model: “Self sufficiency projects are the ultimate aim of UNHCR as they allow the refugees to become independent of emergency assistance and be productively integrated in the receiving community. In the under-developed countries with serious unemployment problems, self-sufficiency projects offer the best alternation for the refugee’s work problem. For the receiving country, these durable solutions are a contribution to the national economy, particularly the projects which include both nationals and refugees.”[7] Costa Rica’s commitment to what the UNHCR deemed as the most effective program for refugee crisis further explicates the traditional openness of Costa Rica to international consensus, whilst concomitantly identifying Costa Rica’s desired integration of refugees. The UNHCR’s evaluation further acknowledges the durable solution as beneficial to the new country of the refugee itself: the influx of labour sources provided a boost to the national economy of Costa Rica. Thus, Costa Rica’s commitment to the durable solution model may be viewed as both a commitment to international law and the notion of human rights, whilst also a policy decision how to utilize the refugee crisis for the benefit of Costa Rica itself.

Nevertheless, what may be termed as Costa Rica’s “comprehensive solution”, insofar as it incorporated the UNHCR’s preferred model while simultaneously allowing for the participation of foreign organizations, nevertheless encountered specific problems. Primarily the non-organizational model’s intervention into the refugee problem was problematic: “The results, however, were less than satisfactory. In 1985 it became evident to the UNHCR that less than half of the 152 projects registered with government agencies were still active. Most of the others had failed.”[8] The infectivity of the multiplicity of organizations according to the quantitative data of the UNHCR tends to suggest that the approach of “a strength in numbers”, i.e., multiple organizations engaging in the refugee crisis, was unsuccessful primarily because of a lack of cohesion. Inasmuch as the Costa Rican intent was essentially one of “no aid is bad aid”, this ultimate failure speaks to a certain consistency needed between organizations, in order better to establish links between groups, and affectively address the grounding problem, that of the refugee him/herself. This bureaucratic entanglement between organizations as detrimental to the refugee is easily discernable from the perspective of the refugee him/herself; because a plurality of organizations exists, the refugee is caught in a bureaucratic system, with no connection to the Costa Rican government itself. This serves as an impasse to the desired integration.

This collapse of the various international programs led Costa Rica to attempt a more autonomous policy that would be regulated by the government, therein optimistically hoping to marginalize the previous failures through a centralization of refugee policy. This centralization would enable a consistent discourse of the durable solution to emerge in the Costa Rican space. As Ed Mihalkanin notes “After the failure of many of the international and domestic refugee projects, the Costa Rican government tried to integrate refugees into already existing jobs.”[9] By Costa Rica directly addressing the problem, this focusing of the remit of refugee policy could better serve the goal of integration: as the refugees are located in Costa Rica, the most efficient means towards integration would be to have the government directly involved in the refugee process by opening economic opportunities to the refugee.

This shift reflects a certain fundamental ambiguity at the heart of the general theory of refugee policy. While, prima facie, the plurality of non-governmental organizations that operated in Costa Rica to alleviate the suffering of the refugee may be viewed as a logical step, inasmuch as it emphasizes giving aid to refugees in light of any possible limits to the capabilities of the Costa Rican government, this approach simultaneously suspends the notion of an integration into Costa Rican society. That is to say, if integration is the ultimate goal of Costa Rican refugee policy, such integration can only be engendered by the direct intervention of the government itself, as the government is ultimately congruent with Costa Rica. From this perspective, the collapse of the aid programmes emanating from various international sources may be viewed, in actuality, as a step towards a more direct involvement of the Costa Rican government in the refugee problematic, in terms of a more strident form of integration. This strident form would be necessary if the Costa Rican government would become the primary instrument for refugee aid in the nation, as opposed to the organizational plurality.

Nevertheless, after the general failure of the international aid programmes, charity organizations, etc., the new Costa Rican government initiative itself faced various de jure issues that prevented the establishing of a greater remit for refugee aid. As Mihalkanin writes, at times Costa Rican laws actually prevented refugee aid, despite any best intentions of the Costa Rican government. This was the case regarding Costa Rican employee law: “Yet very few work permits were issued since by law only ten percent of a firm’s workers can be foreigners.”[10] Thus, the attempt to integrate refugees into the Costa Rican labour force already met opposition in a pre-existing law that marginalized the possibility of foreign workers in Costa Rica. As Mihalkanin notes, despite the intent of both the government to integrate the refugees and the employers’ will to aid the refugees by giving them work, this shared movement encountered a double impasse: the de jure situation of the labour law, coupled with the de facto situation of employers, whom, although giving refuges a workplace, could not register the workers because of the law. Therefore, any type of de jure integration of these refugee workers who were already working in Costa Rica, was not possible because of the law; despite their labour power, and one must conclude, the desire for this labour source, the separation between the de jure and the de facto situation prevented this opportunity at integration. What occurred then is simply a missed opportunity, a miscommunication between government and private sectors, the latter wholly receptive to the influx of refugee workers, but whose hands were metaphorically tied by the Costa Rican law.

This problem of the limits of aid in the sphere of labour relations also extends into the basic human rights of Costa Ricans, such as health care: insofar as health care is available to refugees in Costa Rica, access is limited from both a temporal and financial perspective. As a UNHCR report from 2003 noted, “in Costa Rica, access to social security services is universal, which means that everyone, regardless of nationality, is entitled to health coverage at a very low cost.”[11] Nevertheless, the caveat here is that “refugees and asylum seekers are entitled to free healthcare cover during their first three months in Costa Rica.”[12] This leads to an immediate problem facing refugees after the three month period of coverage has elapsed; as Gloria Maklouf Weiss, Director of ACAI (Asociación de Consultores y Asesores Internacionales), a UNHCR partner in Costa Rica recapitulates this problem: “some refugees are in such economic hardship that they cannot pay even the very small monthly fees.”[13] Thus, considering the situation of the refugee, the three-month time limit appears insufficient for health care coverage. The securing of an employment opportunity in Costa Rica within this same three-month period would have to be a concomitant aim of a programme; otherwise, the benefits of the Costa Rican health care policy are severely limited by the refugees’ inability to generate capital. On this point, the separation of the spheres of employment and healthcare impede the abilities of the refugee to begin a life in Costa Rica; insofar as employment and healthcare are considered as distinct issues, the benefits of healthcare are separated from the refugee labour force. The weakness therefore in this aspect of the policy is not anticipating the contiguity between employment integration and the possibility of health care.

It is examples such as these incongruities in the law and policy of Costa Rica itself that failed to provide a comprehensive programme for its refugees. Thus, whilst Costa Rica’s position as a stable country remains “attractive” to refugees in a time of crisis, various gaps in the system prevented a comprehensive plan to address the phenomenon.


The data in section 2.0 regarding Costa Rica’s history and policy approach to the refugee crisis only provides one side of the picture. This theoretical analysis of Costa Rican refugee policy, considering the constraints on any discourse of this style, is to be supplemented by a questionnaire submitted to four former refugees in Costa Rica. Whilst the sample size of the questionnaire is admittedly small, the necessity of its inclusion rests on a theoretical significance given to the notion of testimony in an effort to verify or contradict the reading provided of Costa Rican refugee policy. The prejudice of the academic discourse is to be alleviated through the survey presentation; thus, the purpose of the questionnaire is based on a theoretical value attached to testimony and the attempt to provide a more complete picture of the refugee policy of Costa Rica. Because of sensitivity to the time concerns of the participants and because of issues with the English language, the questionnaire was deliberately simple and limited to four questions.

1. question

How would you describe the conditions in Costa Rica upon your arrival from your country of origin?

Scale Number of answers
Very good 0
Good 1
Middle 2
Bad 1
Very bad 0
2. question

How receptive was the Costa Rican government or the various international organizations to your needs?

Scale Number of answers
Very receptive 0
Receptive 1
Middle 3
Not Receptive 3


3. question

How would you assess the possibilities for employment and integration in Costa Rica?

Scale Number of answers
Very Good 1
Good 2
Bad 1
Very Bad 0
4. question

Do you think Costa Rica has a good refugee policy?

Scale Number of answers
Yes 3
No 1
I don’t know 0
Else what: 0


While the sample size is admittedly small, and the nature of the questions direct, the data of the questionnaire would seem to indicate a moderate level of satisfaction with the Costa Rican refugee policy. The option for the refugees in Costa Rica appears to be beneficial; the majority of answerers expressed that integration and employment possibilities were available in Costa Rica, whilst also noting the receptivity of the various refugee organizations to the concerns of the refugees.

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It is germane to note that the questionnaire deliberately avoided inquiring into the personal history of the participants, in respect for ethics and the privacy of the participants. While this may be construed as detracting from the accuracy of the questionnaire, as it brackets out some of the personal histories involved in the participants, the aforementioned ethical position of protecting privacy was taken as paramount. Rather the questionnaire was to function as a cursory testimonial survey of Costa Rican refugee policy, and thus, while no means a complete account, it does indicate that the Costa Rican option for refugees was more positive than it was negative.


The difficulty of the refugee problem primarily lies in the problems it engenders vis-à-vis the traditional structure of the State, which relies for its function on the notion of citizenry. Inasmuch as human rights become an international imperative, the anomalous appearance of the refugee conflicts with the traditional State model. This tension is however a source for the production of new approaches to the refugee problematic.

Costa Rica’s position in the ravaged Central America of the 1980s placed the nation into a role of a paradigm case for refugee policy. The Costa Rican approach must be commended at the outset for its commitment to human rights and the welfare of the refugees. The intent of the Costa Rican policy therefore must be viewed in a positive light.

However, the complications that arose from the refugee crisis provide valuable data and source material for the possible improvements of refugee policy. Costa Rica’s acceptance of foreign, international and non-governmental charitable organizations to alleviate the crisis, whilst helping the refugees on the “terrain”, actually hindered the successful integration of these refugees into Costa Rican society, inasmuch as these organizations, as non-Costa Rican entities, actually created a further distance between the refugee and the Costa Rican state.

Moreover, once the majority of these organizations had failed, the Costa Rican government was left to complete the so-called “durable solution.” The impasses to the “durable solution” may be traced to employment and economic laws of the Costa Rican state, laws which were unable to successfully meld with the desired “durable solution.” It is various de jure factors, despite the overall Costa Rican government intent and the intent of the private sector to integrate refugees through employment, which hindered the affectivity of this solution.

Nevertheless, Costa Rica is still referred in some academic literature as an excellent example of a refugee policy. This seems to be supported by the anonymous questionnaire that was a part of our research; the questionnaire, while its sample size is admittedly small, nonetheless offers a certain support to the notion that Costa Rica was more effective than not regarding the refugee experience.

Thus, whilst there are problematics in the policy of Costa Rican refugee integration, it is nevertheless a paradigm from which numerous positives can be drawn, whilst also providing a better insight into the impasses that may present themselves in such a policy: hopefully these cases, will yield a better approach to the difficult notion of the refugee in the future.


Giorgio Agamben, “We Refugees”, accessed at: http://roundtable.kein.org/node/399

Tanya Basok, Keeping Heads Above Water: Salvadorean Refugees in Costa Rica McGill Queen’s Press: 1993.

Alison Brysk, “Global Good Samaritans? Human Rights Foreign Policy in Costa Rica”, in: Global Governance, Vol. 11, 2005.

Martha Honey, Hostile Acts: U.S. Policy in Costa Rica in the 1980s, University of Florida Press: 1994.

Ed Mihalkanin, “Refugee Aid, Displaced Persons, and Development in Central America” in: Refugee Aid and Development, Greenwood Press: 1993.

UNHCR, “Health Fair in Costa Rica gives refugees much needed medical care”, March 6, 2006, accessed at: <http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/EVOD-6MNF3L?OpenDocument>


[1] Giorgio Agamben, “We Refugees”, accessed at: http://roundtable.kein.org/node/399.

[2] Tanya Basok, Keeping Heads Above Water: Salvadorean Refugees in Costa Rica, pg. Xvii.

[3] Martha Honey, Hostile Acts: U.S. Policy in Costa Rica in the 1980s, pg. 4.

[4] UNHCR, “Health Fair in Costa Rica gives refugees much needed medical care”, March 6, 2006, accessed at: <http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/EVOD-6MNF3L?OpenDocument>

[5] Alison Brysk, “Global Good Samaritans? Human Rights Foreign Policy in Costa Rica”, in: Global Governance, Vol. 11, 2005.

[6] Basok, pg. Xviii.

[7] Basok, pg. Vi.

[8] Basok, pg. Xviii.

[9] Ed Mihalkanin, “Refugee Aid, Displaced Persons, and Development in Central America” in: Refugee Aid and Development, pg. 90.

[10] Mihalkanin, pg. 90.

[11] UNHCR, accessed at < http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/EVOD-6MNF3L?OpenDocument>

[12] UNHCR, accessed at <http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/EVOD-6MNF3L?OpenDocument>

[13] UNHCR, accessed at < http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/EVOD-6MNF3L?OpenDocument>

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