An American friend living here in Costa Rica recently pointed out that more U.S. citizens live in Costa Rica than Ticos live in the United States. In 2012, Americans and Spaniards tied as the third largest immigrant groups in Costa Rica, after Nicaraguans and Colombians. Though we are technically visitors, our family certainly appreciates the warm welcome Costa Rica offers us this year, particularly given the current political climate in the United States and ugly nationalist tendencies around the world.
Costa Rica’s warm welcome is not simply extended to wealthy North Americans and Europeans. Every three months our family must leave Costa Rica to renew our tourist visas. Visiting neighboring Nicaragua has turned out to be more of a privilege than a burden, but I am always struck by the open-border crossing we encounter when coming back into Costa Rica. Exiting Nicaragua involves a couple of fees and a fairly rigorous document review, but then we walk through a sort of no-man’s land, followed by a surprisingly open entry into Costa Rica. The road leads up to an immigration building which, as far as I can tell, we can enter to get our passports stamped, or not. The “or-not” option involves following the unguarded road right around the immigration building and up to a bus-ticket counter where we could buy a ticket to almost anywhere in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica recently has seen a huge influx of migrants, and is certainly celebrated by some for its treatment of migration as a humanitarian problem rather than a criminal act. Recent migrants passing through Costa Rica have included people from Cuba, Nigeria, and even Kashmir. Currently, many claim to be from the Congo, a national distinction they hope will bring them greater chances of seeking asylum upon arrival in the U.S., though authorities guess that the majority are Haitian.
I had the opportunity to visit one of Costa Rica’s many migrant camps last December. I joined a group of Quakers who drove to a camp near the Peñas Blancas border with Nicaragua to deliver donated toys. After several months of studying Spanish, my French felt buried, but I dusted it off as best I could and soon found myself getting a tour of the camp with a spirited Haitian woman. We walked tent-to-tent (donated by the U.S.) in search of kids eager to hear that toys had arrived. I was struck by the woman’s willingness to share—a spirit of generosity pervaded the camp and spoke to my impression that folks were being treated well and were then able to take care of more than just their own. Many of the people she introduced me to said they were Haitians, but had been living in Brazil prior to the Olympics. After the construction work there dried up, they moved on in hopes of making it to the United States.
The camp was impressive. Each migrant had a bed, and apparently, adequate clean clothing and blankets inside his tent. Most were young adults, typically in their twenties, with not a lot of young children, other than babies. One man I spoke to, who had been in the camp for a week while waiting to receive money from relatives to pay coyotes to help him through heavily-guarded Nicaragua, said Costa Rica was treating him very well. He reported that Costa Rican guards are very protective of migrants who are provided regular deliveries of toiletries and food that they are then allowed to cook, according to their own preferences. The man compared this camp to his camp in Panama where guards sometimes hit the migrants and fed them low-quality, canteen food.
Our donated toys quickly disappeared, so some folks in our group decided to put the remaining bag of toys aside for later distribution to yet-arrived migrants. At that point, a little girl approached me. She seemed to have more faith in my Haitian French than I did. “Poupe,” she said, signaling to the bag. She was persistent and calm, and after a bit of poking around in the bag, we realized she was asking for a doll. We only had one—plastic and white skinned—but she was clearly delighted when we gave it to her.
Many of us worry about what lies ahead for these travelers. According to an NPR interview, of the approximately 150 migrants entering Costa Rica each day, only about 30 per day are able to sneak into Nicaragua because of its strict closed-door policy. An immigration official told us that most of the migrants opt to go by sea to enter Nicaragua, in spite of the high price ($500 per person) and the dangers: no life jackets and most can’t swim.
For those who do make it to Nicaragua, and continue on north through Central America and Mexico, I wonder what lies ahead for them in the United States? When my friend Jennie asked one woman in the camp if she had ever heard from anyone who made it to the U.S. ahead of her, her reply was “no.”
With the number of displaced people worldwide now surpassing even post World War II numbers–65 million or one in every 113 people–migration is a pressing question now more than ever.