“We Are Overwhelmed”: The Migration Crisis That Led the President of Costa Rica to Request an Emergency Declaration

    Thousands of people are stranded for several days in Costa Rica during their trip to the US

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    “The number of people arriving exceeds the institutional capacity (…).  “We are overwhelmed.”According to the vice minister of the presidency of Costa Rica, Jorge Rodríguez, his country’s capacity to manage the constant and growing flow of migrants passing through its territory towards the United States has reached its maximum limit.

     And this was the reason given by the Costa Rican president, Rodrigo Chaves, for ordering this Tuesday the declaration of a “national emergency” with which he wants to have more economic resources to strengthen the capacities of the institutions in charge of addressing this situation.

     The measure was announced after the arrest last week of 25 migrants on the southern border after a confrontation with police officers who were trying to prevent street vendors in the area, which generated serious disturbances and caused great controversy in the country.

     Chaves, who will sign the presidential decree this past Thursday for the national emergency to come into force, raised the tone and threatened with deportations for foreigners who disturb public order in the country.

     “I have instructed the Ministry of Public Security to have a firm hand with those few people who think that the gentleness, kindness and generous heart of Costa Ricans can be confused with weakness,” he said.

     To migrants who arrive in Costa Rica and “behave badly, disrespecting the authorities, causing disturbances, the message is that they are going back to their country of origin, because we are not going to tolerate it here,” he warned.

     How has this situation come to this point?

    According to official data from border authorities, as of September 23, more than 390,000 migrants had crossed the dangerous Darién jungle this year that separates Colombia from Panama.  This is the highest number ever recorded and far exceeds the 248,000 people who crossed it in all of 2022.

     After crossing Panama, Costa Rica is the next country along the migrant route.Since June, when about 900 migrants a day entered Costa Rican territory through the southern border, the flow tripled to 2,600-2,700 a day in August. “This situation now warrants declaring a national emergency, due to the number of people who are passing through our territory,” said Chaves.

     Once in Costa Rica, migrants take a bus that takes them directly to Los Chiles, on the northern border with Nicaragua.This transportation was implemented by the Costa Rican authorities to try to avoid crowds of migrants in their territory, but hundreds of them are also stranded because they cannot pay the US$30 that the ticket costs.

     This strategy, called “controlled flow,” is also applied in Panama, where migrants previously take a bus to travel directly to the Costa Rican border.Once they arrive in northern Costa Rica, many migrants resort to the service of “Talibans,” as transporters are known who take them to blind spots on the Nicaraguan border because they cannot pay the US$150 that Managua charges as a safe passage to enter regularly through the border point of Las Tablillas

    Paso Canoas, symbol of the crisis

    But it is Paso Canoas, on the southern border of Costa Rica, the border crossing that has become the greatest example of this migration crisis in the country.Although there is a migrant reception center about 15 km away, its capacity for less than 300 people was soon exceeded and a few months ago the authorities installed an open space on part of what was the landing strip of an old airfield, just a few five minutes from the border.

     The government thus intended to prevent migrants from having to wander through the town, where less than 20,000 people live.  But the fact that more than 60,000 people passed through this place alone so far in September made the services of this improvised camp also completely insufficient.

     “The situation is of a dimension that exceeds the capacity of the place and, as soon as you arrive, you are surprised by the overcrowding there is,” says Luis Ponte, coordinator of the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) project in the area.

     The few existing latrines are dirty or collapsed, there are hardly any showers or roofs to protect oneself from the 30 degree temperatures or torrential rains that can last for hours.  One of the biggest problems is perhaps the accumulation of garbage which, according to Ponte, can exceed 12 tons in just over a week, with the consequent health risk.

     “We are overwhelmed in the possibility of attending to in an ordinary way what these institutions could attend to.  “Just the amount of waste that accumulates does not even allow the Municipality of Corredores (to which Paso Canoas belongs) to deal, on a daily basis, with the garbage that is generated there,” the Vice Minister of the Presidency acknowledged.

     Every day large lines form to be able to take the buses to continue the journey north.  Between 500 and 600 people sleep each night on cardboard or, the luckiest, in small tents until they raise the money needed for transportation, which can take four or five days.

     To achieve this, the majority resorts to informally selling food or other products on the streets.  The situation became tense with some neighbors, who last month temporarily blocked the border and demanded a reinforcement of police to prevent so many migrants from wandering through the community, considering that they could spread diseases.

     “People arrive dehydrated and with physical injuries, swelling, viral infections… but also with emotional ailments after having suffered robberies or violence along the way.  They come with a need to be listened to with empathy, to feel welcome despite the conditions of that camp,” explains Ponte, whose organization provides support in the area by delivering medicines, collecting garbage and expanding the covered area of ​​the camp.

     As announced by President Chaves, the authorities will adjust their plan so that migrants board the buses elsewhere to avoid crowding at this point where the situation has already become almost unsustainable.

     What will this national emergency decree be for?

    According to the country’s National Emergency Commission, the declaration of national emergency will allow the delivery of institutional resources from the State to offer migrants optimal conditions for “safe transit” and to meet the needs of the populations where the greatest number of migrants is concentrated.

    Carlos Sandoval García, a professor at the University of Costa Rica who is an expert in migration, agrees that the declaration of emergency could provide funds to facilitate accommodation and transportation for migrants transiting through the country.

     However, avoid considering the current situation as “exceptional.”  In his opinion, this decision is due to the usual position that Chaves maintains regarding migration in a country where 10% of its residents are foreigners (mostly of Nicaraguan origin) and where controversy still resonates over recent unrest between migrants and authorities on the southern border.

     “This declaration is part of the president’s rhetorical tone and not so much of an articulated response strategy to what this humanitarian drama is.  He is characterized by a confrontational and polarizing style.  More than trying to resolve the issue of migration, it is about capitalizing political legitimacy from migration,” he believes.

     The main solution to this situation, the expert points out, lies in improving conditions in the migrants’ countries of origin to guarantee “their right not to have to migrate.”

     “More than a unilateral action by the government of Costa Rica or any other country, what is needed is a regional strategy, a summit of presidents that truly addresses the migration emergency we are experiencing and prevents forced displacement.  Going from the national to the regional is something key that is urgently needed,” he says.

     For the moment, the Costa Rican president was clear in his message to migrants who plan to pass through his territory in the coming months.“Whoever comes here is going to respect our laws, our police and the towns through which they will travel (…).  Those who are thinking about coming to Costa Rica should start meditating,” said Chaves.

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