Asylum Seekers in Costa Rica Struggle to Survive as New Decree Restricts Access to Work 

Costa Rica has a long history of welcoming people in need of international protection. In recent years, the country has become a major destination for displaced people in the region, with most coming from Nicaragua since the country’s social and economic collapse in 2017. Today, close to 400,000 forcibly displaced people live in Costa Rica, representing about 7.5 percent of the total population. Costa Rica has implemented innovative measures and structures to ensure the protection and inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers, serving as a model for the implementation of the Global Compact for Refugees (GCR). Costa Rica has thus become a champion for the inclusion of forcibly displaced individuals, integrating them into the economy and granting them access to education, health, and social protection. 

However, Costa Rica’s response to forced displacement is at risk. In November 2022, President Rodrigo Chaves approved a decree that reforms the country’s refugee regulation, imposing new restrictions on asylum seekers. Among other things, the decree places new barriers to work for asylum seekers, affecting the delivery of work permits and prohibiting self-employment. The reforms to the refugee regulation not only threaten the well-being of asylum seekers in Costa Rica, but also the effectiveness of the country’s refugee response. Without access to work, many asylum seekers in Costa Rica risk losing their livelihoods at a time when many are already struggling to survive. 

In the past, Costa Rica’s law granted refugees and asylum seekers legal status, freedom of movement, and the right to work. It also allowed asylum seekers to join the labor market (either as employees or self-employed) three months after filing their asylum application. However, with the new decree, those filing new applications for refugee status cannot obtain work authorization unless they have a job offer. This requirement creates a vicious cycle as asylum seekers cannot obtain a job offer without a work permit and vice versa. Furthermore, employers also face increased obstacles when they want to hire asylum seekers because of numerous requirements related to sponsoring their work authorizations.  

Since the implementation of the new regulations, forcibly displaced individuals submitting refugee applications in Costa Rica are struggling to find jobs. In Costa Rica, Refugees International met ​​Joel,* a Salvadoran man who applied for asylum earlier this year. Joel arrived in Costa Rica five years ago as a graduate student. He submitted his refugee application after graduating.  

“In El Salvador, as a young man, I was constantly harassed to join a gang, and [I] was attacked several times, so I couldn’t go back,” Joel told Refugees International. Now he is having trouble finding a job to support himself in Costa Rica.  

“I am an asylum seeker, but I cannot work due to the sudden law changes. Now, I must have a job offer to obtain a work permit.”  

He is afraid the government might deny him refugee status. 

“I know no one will hire me. No business wants to incur all the expenses without the guarantee that I will stay ​​here,” he said.

The changes to the regulation also affect asylum seekers with longstanding unresolved cases who already have work permits, as they must now contribute to the Costa Rican social security system to maintain their authorization to work. Social security contributions in Costa Rica represent around 10.6 percent of workers’ salaries, with a minimum yearly contribution of ₡327,337—or around $600 dollars. However, many asylum seekers do not have stable jobs and must use their limited resources to pay their social security contributions. This is difficult for many asylum seekers, as they struggle to cover their basic needs. Unable to comply with the new requirements, many risk losing their work permits and thus, their livelihoods.  

The new decree not only increases the legal barriers for asylum seekers to work, but also limits their ability to obtain jobs in practice. Its impact will be massive. More than 90 percent of forcibly displaced individuals in Costa Rica are asylum seekers, which means that about 350,000 individuals will face serious challenges accessing employment. 

The decree is counterproductive. It reduces access to formal employment, which in turn, decreases prospects for fiscal revenue and deprives the country of skilled workers that complement the local labor force. Furthermore, it also decreases the effectiveness of the response. For instance, the Inter-American Development Bank just announced $20 million in grant support to Costa Rica, partly to bolster the socioeconomic inclusion of the refugee and migrant population. However, with regulations that severely restrict access to the labor market, efforts to support the economic inclusion of forcibly displaced individuals will be fruitless.  

With fewer opportunities for work, the humanitarian needs of asylum seekers will continue to rise. Asylum seekers will become more dependent on already limited aid to find shelter and cover basic necessities like food or medicine. If things do not change, the effects of the decree will be felt throughout the region. Without access to work, many people will have no choice but to leave Costa Rica, likely to join the large number of forcibly displaced individuals from the region trying to reach the United States in search of protection and better living conditions.

Featured Image: A Venezuelan migrant sells candy to make money in San Jose, Costa Rica, on October 13, 2022. Photo by Ezequiel Becerra/AFP via Getty Images.