Fair Observer: The U.S. Must Pay Attention to Displaced Nicaraguans

This op-ed was originally published in Fair Observer

The Biden administration has made it clear that US engagement with the Western Hemisphere is a priority. Much of its early focus has been on Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, as forced displacement from these countries is such a pressing concern. But a worrying crackdown in Nicaragua is going largely unnoticed. Nicaragua’s political crisis could soon have major humanitarian consequences and further destabilize an already fragile situation in the region. The United States must act.  

Nicaragua’s latest crisis began in 2018 with a small demonstration against President Daniel Ortega’s changes to the nation’s pension system. Since then, Ortega and pro-government groups have waged a brutal crackdown on protesters, leaving more than 300 people dead and over 2,000 injured.

The situation is becoming increasingly alarming in the run-up to the presidential election on November 7. Last month, Ortega’s government carried out sweeping arrests of top opposition leaders and silenced dissenting voices. There is almost no likelihood of a free and fair election later this year. The government’s actions have also contributed to Nicaragua’s perilous economic situation, which could impede the country’s COVID-19 recovery. Only 2.5% of the Nicaraguan population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and even fewer have received only one dose.

Political repression and economic despair have forced over 100,000 Nicaraguans to flee the country. Costa Rica has generously hosted nearly 80% of those who left. Thousands more have gone to Mexico, Panama and the United States. In fact, apprehensions of Nicaraguans at the US southern border increased by 670% between January and May of this year. A recent CID Gallup (Interdisciplinary Development Consultants, Inc.) survey revealed that nearly two out of every three Nicaraguans still in the country want to migrate to the United States, Spain or Canada, due mainly to Nicaragua’s sociopolitical crisis.

Though Nicaraguan refugees and asylum seekers have been generally well-received by their neighbors, the Costa Rican system is under strain as more Nicaraguans — as well as Venezuelans, Cubans and other asylum seekers — seek protection. Nicaraguans in Costa Rica also face barriers to full economic integration and were hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many lost jobs in the informal economy and more than three-quarters of Nicaraguans in Costa Rica are experiencing immense hunger. Even more alarming, nearly 60,000 Nicaraguans in Costa Rica made the harrowing decision to return home as opposed to continue living in their host country with limited support.

Take Notice of Nicaragua

The United States should take several steps to address the ongoing displacement and suffering of Nicaraguans.  

First, the Biden administration should support Costa Rica in its efforts to receive, protect and integrate Nicaraguans. During a recent visit to Costa Rica, Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent a valuable signal of US engagement. The administration should convey strong public support for Costa Rica, as a democratic leader in the region that is making serious efforts to provide safety to those in need.

The US government should also look for opportunities — directly or through international organizations like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) — to support Costa Rica’s asylum system and continue to strongly back the Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework (MIRPS), the regional initiative to address forced displacement in Central America and Mexico.

Second, as Costa Rica steps up the provision of COVID vaccines for its population, the Biden administration should explore with agencies, such as UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the provision of humanitarian aid to the Costa Rican government bodies and civil society groups supporting the needs of Nicaraguans receiving protection in Costa Rica.

The administration recently announced its plan to distribute approximately 6 million vaccines through the COVAX initiative to Latin American countries, including Costa Rica. This is a welcomed step in supporting Costa Rica during this tenuous time. Yet Washington could go further by supporting assistance to address job losses and food insecurity that Nicaraguans in Costa Rica have faced amid the pandemic, as well as efforts to ensure that these vulnerable individuals remain protected while they await their vaccinations.

Third, the Biden administration must comply with its own laws and international obligations by permitting Nicaraguans fleeing political persecution to seek asylum at the US southern border with Mexico. The US should commit to ending a near-complete ban on asylum applications and stop sending people back to dangerous situations. Nicaraguan asylum seekers should have their claims assessed — with access to counsel and without being subjected to detention.  

As the situation in Nicaragua becomes increasingly dire, these measures would be a step in the right direction and would have a positive impact on displaced Nicaraguans, the government of Costa Rica and the region.

BANNER PHOTO: Empty streets are seen at the colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua, on March 18, 2020. Photo Credit: INTI OCON/AFP via Getty Images.