Improving the Socio-economic Integration of LGBTIQ+ Refugees in Costa Rica

Introduction

Over the past year, Costa Rica has become less welcoming to people seeking asylum. New government policies on asylum seekers have made it harder for people seeking asylum to access formal employment and have exacerbated the particular socioeconomic vulnerabilities that LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers were already facing in Costa Rica. During our fieldwork for this report, we heard many stories of LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers living in extreme poverty, suffering labor exploitation, being denied access to healthcare based on migration status, and experiencing discrimination by civil servants and private businesses alike. LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers and refugees also have difficulty securing housing and face bias-motivated violence.

At the same time, multi-stakeholder partnerships among civil society organizations, the private sector, and UN agencies have successfully developed socio-economic integration initiatives for forcibly displaced people, LGBTIQ+ populations, or both. Often, the government has supported these initiatives. This report recommends implementing inclusive migration and refugee policies that recognize the intersectionality and human rights of diverse groups, combined with culturally sensitive, individualized support programs and efforts to combat xenophobia, and gender-based and prejudice-driven violence. The goal is to increase the well-being of LGBTIQ+ refugees and asylum seekers, harness the economic contributions of migrants, and strengthen social cohesion, equity, and justice in Costa Rica. 

Methodology

This report is a product of research conducted between late June and October 2023 as part of the “Economic Inclusion of LGBTIQ+ Refugees in Costa Rica” project led by Refugees International and funded by the Western Union Foundation. The research sought to identify economic barriers for LGBTIQ+ refugees, foster dialogue among public and private entities, amplify LGBTIQ+ refugee voices, and enhance socio-economic integration by creating a more welcoming environment.

The research process included a desk review of primary and publicly available secondary sources and a one-week fieldwork visit to San José. IRCA Casabierta arranged a focus group with LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers and refugees who benefit from their services, as well as interviews with representatives from national and international NGOs, UN agencies, and government officials. The August 2023 focus group gathered insights from eight LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers (three trans women, two lesbian/bisexual women, and three gay men) from different national backgrounds. The discussion covered discrimination, barriers to accessing the formal labor market and basic services like health and education, and their recommendations for enhancing socio-economic integration opportunities in Costa Rica.

We are thankful to the interviewees and focus group participants who shared their expertise, experiences, and recommendations. We also appreciate their consent to allow us to share this information.

This report analyzes the main challenges in accessing rights and integrating LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers and refugees and puts forward recommendations for the private sector, policy makers, and international donors to ensure better access to dignified work, healthcare, and legal status. This report also draws on IRCA Casabierta’s decade-long experience in delivering services, executing economic empowerment programs for LGBTIQ+ migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees, and conducting research.

Background on Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Costa Rica 

In September 2023, Costa Rica, which has a population of 5 million, hosted almost 400,000 asylum seekers, refugees, and other people in need of international protection. Several political, economic, and social characteristics make Costa Rica attractive for many forcibly displaced LGBTIQ+ people from Central and South America. Costa Rica is an upper-middle-income country with relative economic and political stability, comparatively low levels of violence, and a robust social security system. It has a long history of welcoming migrants and refugees, and its legal framework ensures refugees can access work, education, health, and social protection. Furthermore, the country has ratified all international rights instruments, which provides a strong legal basis for mainstreaming human rights into policymaking. Between 2018 and 2022, Costa Rica made significant strides in recognizing LGBTIQ+ rights and developing regulations to prevent and address discrimination due to sexual orientation or gender identity.1 Over the past few years, thanks to LGBTIQ+ and feminist activism, the social discourse around LGBTIQ+ issues has also evolved, becoming less of a taboo.

But barriers remain for LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers in Costa Rica and have been exacerbated in recent months by Executive Decree No. 43810 MGP, issued in December 2022, which amended Costa Rican regulations governing refugee status, prohibited asylum seekers from engaging in self-employment, and imposed new requirements to gain a work permit. The Decree has led to more LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers living in irregular status and further marginalized them in the Costa Rican economy. 

Process of Seeking Protection and Work Authorization in Costa Rica

More than 90 percent of people with international protection needs currently living in Costa Rica are asylum seekers(solicitantes de refugio). This includes both applicants undergoing the preliminary screening to be accepted as people seeking the status of “asylum seeker,” and those in the legal procedure to determine if they meet the criteria for official recognition as “refugees” (see more below). The Refugee Status Determination (RSD) procedure takes many years to complete. Recognized refugees enjoy the same rights and access to services as Costa Rican citizens. This is not the case for asylum seekers. Most significant for this report, recognized refugees can legally work in the formal economy under Costa Rica’s 2009 National Migration Law. However, asylum seekers must overcome a series of bureaucratic hurdles to obtain work permits. 

The process of seeking asylum begins with submission of an application to the Refugee Unit of the General Directorate of Migration and Non-Nationals (DGME). Asylum seekers are given an appointment to produce the required documentation and undergo a brief eligibility interview on the same day to formalize their application (i.e., to be recognized as “asylum seekers”), a procedure known as the ‘merged’ or ‘expedited’ process. In many cases, denials are issued on the day the formal request is made if the application is considered unfounded. In the past, this was because the applications did not raise claims connected to the legal grounds for refugee status.  Executive Decree No. 43810 MGP introduced additional reasons for denial, namely having been in the country for longer than 30-days, having sought asylum in or transited through a country recognized as a safe third country by the DGME (e.g., Panama, Colombia, Brazil, etc.), or having expressed an intention to work in Costa Rica. If denied, applicants have three days to submit an appeal. If the application is denied once more, the individual is obliged to either regularize their status through another migration category or depart the country within 30 days.

If applicants are accepted as asylum seekers, they receive a temporary residence permit ID (“Carné provisional de Solicitante de Refugio”). This does not grant work authorization but is a legal ID card that is supposed to ensure access to services, such as the ability to open a bank account, access to education, state-funded social security, cash assistance for those living in extreme poverty, and access to the public healthcare system. 90 days after getting this ID, asylum seekers can apply for a work permit, which can be denied. In a process that can take between a few months to a few years, the Refugee Unit examines their refugee application to determine if they meet the criteria to be officially recognized as refugees (based on international, regional, and national legal standards)2 and prepares recommendations for the Commission of Restricted Visas and Refugees (CVRR) for a decision. If an application is denied, the individual can appeal to the independent Administrative Migration Tribunal (TAM). If recognized as refugees, they receive a permanent resident Identification Document for Foreigners (“DIMEX”) valid for two years, renewable biennially, and have the right to work and other rights awarded to Costa Rican citizens. 

In recent years, the Costa Rican international protection system has lacked the funding to handle the increase in refugee status applications. At the end of 2022, the country had received 222,056 applications in the past four years, with the majority of applicants being from Nicaragua, followed by Venezuela and, to a lesser extent, Cuba. Out of these applications, 172,689 were still pending resolution.3 Currently, the system is processing requests from 2017; if someone applies for refugee status today, their interview is scheduled for eleven years from now. In the meantime, many asylum seekers live in uncertainty and are excluded from accessing basic rights, partly because civil servants and businesses are not always aware of the rights accorded to asylum seekers by the temporary residence permit ID (Carné provisional de Solicitante de Refugio).  Based on Refugees International interview findings, the Carne is systematically rejected by health service providers and businesses, such as banks. 

Legal and bureaucratic challenges to asylum seeker economic integration were exacerbated by the  Executive Decree No. 43810 MGP of December 1, 2022. Amidst the rise of xenophobic, racist, and discriminatory official discoursesurrounding migration, the Decree aimed to reduce the significant backlog in handling asylum cases by discouraging so-called “economic migrants” from applying for refugee status solely to obtain a work permit.4 The Decree’s provisions prohibited asylum seekers from engaging in self-employment and imposed a circular requirement to produce a job offer to gain a work permit. The Decree also mandated affiliation with the Costa Rican Social Security Fund (CCSS) as a precondition for asylum seekers to acquire work permits and for refugees to renew their permanent residency ID (DIMEX). In practice, this means that obtaining documentation is contingent upon employment, which is dependent on securing a work permit or on making voluntary contributions to the CCSS even while unemployed—asylum seekers or refugees cannot be affiliated to the CCSS without making contributions.

Costa Rica has also implemented a special temporary category (“Categoría Especial Temporal”) for Cubans, Venezuelans, and Nicaraguans in 2021, which granted them two years of protection in Costa Rica (renewable for two more years) and a work permit. In March 2023, the government announced the extension of this special temporary category for Cubans, Venezuelans, and Nicaraguans whose refugee status applications had been denied or were still pending. This is expected to help streamline the process of granting protection to these nationals by avoiding appeals and excluding these applications from the regular RSD procedure. 

Costa Rica also plays a significant role as a transit country for mixed movements of people traveling from South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and other regions toward the United States. In response to the increase in these mixed-migration flows in the past few years, and based on their longstanding positive diplomatic relations and previous cooperation in various migration policy areas, including anti-trafficking efforts and border control, the governments of Costa Rica and the United States have forged bilateral agreements for regional migration management, such as the United States and Costa Rica migration arrangement of March 2022 and the ‘Safe Mobility initiative’(SMI) of June 2023. The SMI provides access to free screenings for four potential lawful pathways to the United States for eligible Venezuelan and Nicaraguan nationals who entered Costa Rica by June 12, 2023: resettlement as a refugee, family reunification, a temporary employment visa, or a humanitarian permit (parole). A Safe Mobility Office was established in San José, and applicants have been able to register using an online platform since August 2023. The Safe Mobility Initiative will aid LGBTIQ+ migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, especially those at a heightened risk of gender-based and prejudice-based violence. As of October 30, 2023, 3,200 individuals have submitted applications to the SMI. Of these, 1,250 people have been referred for potential resettlement, undergoing interviews with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), while an additional 400 individuals have been assessed for other legal pathways to the United States. Additionally, 281 people in Costa Rica have also been referred for resettlement in Spain.

Challenges Facing LGBTIQ+ People with RSD Procedures in Costa Rica

LGBTIQ+ individuals in need of international protection face additional challenges with RSD procedures. Once in the country, they must find reliable sources of information, guidance, and support to apply for refugee status. Many are unaware that persecution due to their diverse SOGIESC (sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual characteristics) is grounds for protection. Several of the LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers interviewed indicated that initially, they were not aware that they could seek refuge due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. One Salvadoran asylum seeker said, “I didn’t know that I could apply for refuge due to my sexual orientation, so I felt a lot of relief [when told I was eligible to do so by IRCA] because information became a tool I have to fight and be safe.” 

Additionally, as part of the “merged process,” both the application to the Refugee Unit of DGME and the eligibility interview take place on the same day. According to NGOs interviewed, eligibility officers assess dozens of claims daily and dedicate approximately 30 minutes on average to each case before reaching a decision. Because the procedure is not conducted in a trauma-informed or age-, gender, and diversity-sensitive manner, LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers, especially transgender women, may not be identified as being in need of international protection.

In these circumstances, LGBTIQ+ individuals in need of international protection must have easy access to safe spaces and in-person information and guidance, especially at the DGME. Several non-government entities and UNHCR assist asylum seekers. But only a small number provide legal information for LGBTIQ+ individuals in need of international protection. In addition, information is not always centralized, easily available, or tailored to the particular needs of economically and socially marginalized asylum seekers. For example, when information or assistance is solely available online or on the phone, it can be challenging for asylum seekers who may not be technologically literate or lack personal cell phones to understand it, making any bureaucratic procedure harder for them. Partnerships between the government and NGOs can help fill this information gap. For instance, IRCA’s support desk at the DGME and IRCA and the Ministry of Labor’s “employment offices” provide individualized assistance for LGBTIQ+ migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. 

Unequal Access to Decent Employment for LGBTIQ+ Workers and Entrepreneurs

While it has low poverty levels by Central American standards, Costa Rica exhibits high relative income inequality. The economy largely depends on agricultural trade and the service sector, which are known for informality, low wages, and reliance on migrant labor. The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these issues, driving high levels of unemployment and increasing poverty rates. Informal workers, including LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers and refugees, were disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s economic consequences and containment measures. Although unemployment has since returned to pre-pandemic levels, income inequality and inflation continue to hinder recovery for the most affected groups. Moreover, in Costa Rica, the majority of private employers are SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises), which generate 50 percent of employment opportunities. According to private sector experts interviewed, many of these SMEs lack any social responsibility programs or training schemes that could raise awareness about diversity or migrant integration. 

Due to discrimination, many LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers and refugees opt to become self-employed or entrepreneurs. As a Nicaraguan trans refugee told us, “When I came to Costa Rica, I found work in a Chinese restaurant, but they made me cut my hair. Now I am a hairdresser at home, and I don’t have insurance.”  

Indeed, asylum seekers and refugee entrepreneurs face unique challenges beyond what Costa Rican LGBTIQ+ entrepreneurs generally experience. Early family rejection and educational discrimination in their countries of origin lead to dropouts and lack of higher education, particularly for trans individuals who have been excluded due to misidentification. Interviewees explained that financial necessities often force them to forego educational or skill-building opportunities in favor of immediate income-generating activities for sustenance. Some said they had abandoned courses due to transportation or food costs. This, coupled with legal uncertainty, typically limits them to the service industry or to small businesses, such as food vendors, retailers of low-value products, tailors, or beauticians. An NGO caseworker that works with lesbian asylum seeker and refugees told us about a client who “knows how to care for the elderly, has five years of experience, but now she is street vending and has been robbed…she would like to learn cooking, but she is illiterate.”   

In our interviews, NGOs consistently said that individualized, gender-sensitive, and culturally appropriate support programs are the most effective path towards socio-economic integration for most LGBTIQ+ individuals seeking refuge, especially trans women. This is because, even when enrolled in integration programs, pervasive legal and financial uncertainties, immediate economic needs, and discrimination make it difficult for most of them to commit to long-term, structured processes necessary to successfully develop small businesses or integrate into the labor market without direct support. Among some examples, IRCA CASABIERTA employs a personalized direct services model, “Impúlsate Ya,” at the Center for Integration and Development (CID). The program provides access to education, healthcare, dignified work, entrepreneurial tools, and individual and group mentorship, integrated with psycho-social support services. From February 2022 to June 2023, 110 LGBTIQ+ individuals from various Latin American countries participated, with over 60 percent finding employment and 58 percent of trans women graduates either launching businesses or obtaining certifications post-program. 

“I have been living here [in San José] for five years. At the beginning, I was working as a sex worker, on the streets… IRCA CASABIERTA has helped me so much, from the name change to my 7-month English course at the Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje. I was selected [to benefit from the course], I felt super good, met many people, it was a different environment, I attended from Monday to Friday from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day, they assigned us homework, and I learned a lot…Thanks to this, I got a job in a call center.”

Venezuelan trans refugee

Although not solely focused on the LGBTIQ+ migrant population, other non-profits, such as CENDEROSTransvida,Fundación MujerYo Emprendedor, and FUNDEPOS University, provide competence and skills training to find employment or start small businesses. Chambers of commerce and business associations could help develop business networks or cooperatives for LGBTIQ+ refugee entrepreneurs in Costa Rica’s limited economy. 

Rising Anti-LGBTQI+ Sentiment and Xenophobia

The UN’s Third Report on Hate Speech and Discrimination for Costa Rica identified an increase of 255 percent in hate speech and discrimination on social media targeting women, LGBTIQ+ populations, and migrants between 2021 and 2023. The current socio-economic context, in which some material needs of the Costa Rican population (housing, employment, transportation, and security) remain unfulfilled, is fertile ground for increased frustration and hatred directed at newcomers. Notably, xenophobia often carries undertones of aporophobia (a disdain for people experiencing poverty), making economically excluded migrants its main target. This bias is fueled by uninformed fears over migrants stealing jobs from nationals and putting excessive strain on the social security system (CCSS) to the detriment of citizens. As a lesbian Nicaraguan refugee told us, “I have heard many Costa Ricans say that Nicaraguans and Venezuelans have more opportunities, but if they really knew what we live, they wouldn’t say that…we don’t have stable work, our work permit is going to expire, we can’t go to the clinic, and people don’t see that.”

All interviewed LGBTIQ+ refugees and asylum seekers expressed having experienced discrimination due to their diverse SOGIESC and nationality, both by civil servants and the general population. They believe xenophobia is pervasive partly because civil servants, healthcare providers, and employers are not well informed about the lived realities of migrants in Costa Rica, leading to a lack of empathy. They all expressed that better public understanding and accurate information about migrants, including combating the influence of misleading narratives claiming migrants receive more benefits than nationals, would significantly enhance their integration.

While Costa Rica made significant strides in recognizing LGBTIQ+ rights and developing regulations to prevent and address discrimination due to sexual orientation or gender identity, the establishment of a government-wide diversity and inclusion policy with clear objectives and steps is still pending. 

Misinformation and Biases Lead to Discrimination

Misinformation, ignorance, and biases among civil servants and businesses prevent asylum seekers and refugees from accessing services and employment. Only a small percentage of NGO, business, and government staff undergo training on diversity, leading to many gaps in knowledge about the unique protection needs of LGBTIQ+ migrants. 

Indeed, civil servants have the option to raise a “conscientious objection” to abstain from serving LGBTIQ+ people, and from participating in training sessions related to diversity, LGBTIQ+ issues, etc. This contributes to the various forms of discrimination and poses a challenge to integration as it impedes the training of every civil servant.

In the private sector, prevailing stereotypes about gender roles can lead to the relegation of LGBTIQ+ individuals to occupations deemed “suitable” for them. LGBTIQ+ populations in Costa Rica face several forms of workplace discrimination and harassment, which are more prevalent and severe in the case of trans women. These include being allowed fewer opportunities for career advancement, microaggressions, physical and sexual harassment, and a felt obligation to hide their sexual identity and/or gender orientation. Many interviewees stated that refugee and migrant trans women feel the need to change the way they present themselves, opting for more masculine clothing and behavior as a survival mechanism to avoid harassment or discrimination by employers. 

Businesses are also unclear about the different labor rights of asylum seekers and refugees, especially after the Executive Decree of December 1, 2022. A lack of clear government-led communication explaining recent changes in the law has created a confusing legal landscape, where, drawing from IRCA Casabierta’s experience collaborating with the government, most government civil servants from all sectors and businesses are confused about procedures. Many businesses, even those that had shown interest in hiring refugees in the past, are now refraining due to the constantly changing and confusing legal landscape and the official xenophobic discourse. Partnerships between the government and non-profits can help fight disinformation and bias. Recently, IRCA, DGME, and partners initiated an awareness-raising campaign to educate businesses and the public about the social rights awarded to asylum seekers and refugees by their identification documents.

Challenges Facing Refuge-seeking and Refugee Trans Women

Gender-based and bias-motivated violence due to gender identity, gender expression, or sexual characteristics are more pervasive for trans women. Forcibly displaced trans women are at heightened vulnerability due to their intersectional identities during their flight, journey, and when trying to integrate into Costa Rica. All the trans women interviewed expressed that their mental and physical well-being is impacted not only by bureaucratic hurdles in obtaining identification documents that match their gender identity but also by the failure of civil servants, employers, and healthcare providers to recognize them as women, even after securing such documentation.

Besides their exclusion from the formal labor market once they openly express their identity, refugee trans women often have life experiences that have created additional barriers to securing stable, legal employment. Early transitioning often leads to educational dropouts due to harassment. Excluded from formal work, many turn to the informal sector, including sex work. Many of these trans women carry sexually transmitted infections (STIs), sometimes due to sexual violence endured in their countries of origin or during their escape and journeys through the Darien. Past traumas and daily challenges like identity non-recognition adversely affect their mental and physical health. For some, self-administration of hormones from dubious sources leads to various health complications. 

The National Women’s Institute (INAMU)’s Plan for Equality for 2018-2030 recognizes the need for an intersectional approach that considers the heightened exposure of migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, trans, lesbian, and intersex women to discrimination and gender-based violence. However, more holistic and improved protection measures for these groups are needed, notably better access to gender-based violence prevention and response. Although the Commissioner for Social Inclusion (Comisionado de Inclusión Social), appointed in 2022 has stated that one of its priorities is trans women, there has been no significant progress toward the fulfillment of their human rights. 

María’s Story

María, a trans Nicaraguan woman in her early twenties, lives in a tent on the outskirts of San José with other trans migrant women she refers to as her “sisters.” María’s life in Nicaragua was marked by violence and rejection, primarily from her family, pushing her to seek refuge in Costa Rica three years ago. She grapples with chronic illnesses, including HIV. Her health has been further compromised by the repercussions of self-administered plastic surgery attempts, namely a spill of industrial silicone to other parts of her body. Because she has an Identification Document for Foreigners (“DIMEX”), she can access free-of-charge healthcare. With the little income she earns, she buys food for the two trans women she lives with, one of whom lacks access to healthcare like María.

Healthcare and Educational Needs of LGBTIQ+ Asylum Seekers and Refugees

Costa Rica has a robust public health insurance system, but xenophobia and bias-based discrimination still remain a challenge. Both asylum seekers and refugees can access social insurance even if they are not employed, either through voluntary contributions to the Costa Rican Social Security Fund (CCSS) or through social security benefits if they are registered with the Social Welfare Institute (IMAS)’s poverty alleviation program due to extreme poverty. An agreement between UNHCR, the CCSS, and their partners has enabled 6,000 refugees and asylum seekers with critical health conditions and extreme economic vulnerability to access health insurance. Key services, such as antiretroviral treatments for people living with HIV, are free of charge and do not require a legal migration status. Still, nearly all interviewed LGBTIQ+ individuals expressed distress over facing discrimination at healthcare centers due to their migration status or their inability to stay up-to-date with CCSS contributions. As a Venezuelan gay refugee told us: 

“When I still didn’t have my work permit and was still waiting for them to give me the interview to be extended, I was denied a medicine I needed because I didn’t have my documents up-to-date. Now, the bureaucracy and the ‘it’s not my problem’ attitude from the civil servants always get to you. So, the most important thing is to keep social insurance payments up-to-date.”  

While healthcare policies and protocols are inclusive and respectful of human rights, their practical application depends significantly on the goodwill and dedication of specific front-line workers and civil servants. Many interviewees agreed that there is a need for training healthcare workers on the diverse physical and mental healthcare needs of LGBTIQ+ individuals (i.e., to broaden their perspective and avoid mistakenly equating being LGBTIQ+ with having HIV), the specific needs of trans women, and the importance of gender-affirmative care. Supporting community-based organizations are also crucial, given that LGBTIQ+ rights and feminist grassroots (colectivas) like Colectiva IrreversiblesAsociación SomosBeso Diverso, and Voces Fieras are at the forefront of advocating for violence prevention and mental health. 

In discussions about education, LGBTIQ+ refugees expressed the need to relax the bureaucratic requirements for the recognition of foreign school certificates, diplomas, and degrees and to establish alternative methodologies to validate the academic knowledge of asylum seekers and refugees, who typically flee their countries without their educational certifications.5 Reforming laws and public administration regulations that currently create legal barriers for trans individuals who have updated their identity documents or faced difficulties verifying their identity or educational credentials is crucial for the socio-economic integration of trans asylum seekers and refugees. Interviewees also highlighted the significant benefits they have received from educational programs focused on entrepreneurship and financial literacy, along with other skill-building initiatives that can readily translate to enhanced livelihoods. An individualized, tailored, gender-sensitive, and culturally appropriate approach in training programs for LGBTIQ+ refugees is crucial, including sensitization classes for trainers to understand their unique circumstances and use inclusive language in educational content. 

Recommendations

To all government bodies in Costa Rica:

  • Implement frequent training and awareness-raising sessions for government staff on LGBTIQ+ issues. To achieve universal implementation of these training efforts, the Office of the Ombudsperson should file a “writ of amparo” before the Constitutional Chamber to review the article within the public employment law related to conscientious objection in public service.  In the interim, urge public officials to provide asylum seekers and refugees with the necessary tools to file complaints against civil servants in case of harassment or discrimination.

To the General Directorate on Migration and Foreign Affairs (DGME), including the Refugee Unit (RU):

  • Ensure LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers receive individualized legal guidance to prepare for their “merged process,” given that LGBTIQ+ individuals often are unaware they can seek international protection based on their sexual orientation or gender identity and often require additional time and support to prepare their documentation. This will require resuming the cooperation agreement by which IRCA CASABIERTA used to be seated at the Refugee Unit to provide information and assist LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers with their applications. 
  • Eliminate the requirement to be insured by the Costa Rican Social Security Fund (CCSS) as a precondition for asylum seekers to acquire work permits and for refugees to renew their permanent residency ID (DIMEX).
  • Promote awareness campaigns to educate the public about temporary and permanent residency permits, ensuring government offices, service providers, and employers recognize them as legitimate identity documents. Additionally, actively support mass media and social media awareness-raising campaigns against xenophobia and promoting positive contributions migrants make to the country’s economy and social fabric.

To the Costa Rican Social Security Fund (CCSS):

  • Increase resources and support for mental health, given the elevated vulnerability to mental health illnesses of LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers and refugees, and ensure the provision of free antiretroviral treatment and other services for those previously diagnosed with or living with HIV, irrespective of their documentation status.
  • Ensure that LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers and refugees have straightforward access to information on all available services, including about antiretroviral treatments for people living with HIV, and how to utilize them.          

To the Ministry of Labor and Social Security (MTSS):

  • Produce clear, easy-to-use guidance on the requirements for corporations and SMEs to hire asylum seekers and refugees (see, for example, TENT, UNHCR, and Refugiados AC’s Mexico Hiring Guide) and on the social and economic benefits of hiring forcibly displaced migrants, based on the latest research and evidence on labor integration
  • Partner with international agencies to encourage corporations and SMEs to hire LGBTIQ+, asylum seekers, and refugees through incentives like sustainability seals or certifications, such as the “Vivir la Integración Seal,” awarded by UNHCR Costa Rica and partners to companies for their commitment to refugees’ integration. Cash incentives should be avoided given that, in the past, these have led to an increased perception that “the State disproportionately helps migrants” and, consequently, heightened xenophobia.

To the UNHCR: 

  • Develop safe spaces where LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers and refugees, especially trans women, can receive information on their rights, guidance about the refugee determination procedure, and services available to them. 

To the private sector:

  • In partnership with national NGOs, allocate a portion of corporate social responsibility budgets to launch awareness-raising campaigns on social media and/or mass media against discrimination and xenophobia and that promote inclusion and highlight positive stories and describe migrants’ contributions to economic growth and social development.
  • Allocate a portion of corporate social responsibility budgets to establish programs that provide refugee entrepreneurs, particularly from the LGBTIQ+ population, startup seed capital, training, continuous professional development, and personalized mentorship. Drawing on previously implemented programs, small entrepreneurs benefit the most when funds are sourced from the private sector and managed by non-profits through small grants.

To international donors:

  • As part of their support for localization, LGBTIQ+ populations, and refugees in Costa Rica,  USAIDOAS and the IDB should provide long-term grants to national and refugee-led organizations providing individualized and in-person wrap-around services for LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers to promote their integration. 

Conclusion

To sustain a progressive approach to refugees and LGBTIQ+ people, the Costa Rican government, along with the private sector and international donors, must enhance their support for integration initiatives through multi-stakeholder partnerships and local civil society programs. Incorporating an intersectional approach that considers social groups with multiple vulnerabilities, such as asylum seekers who are LGBTIQ+ individuals, into future policies and legislation is also key. By providing culturally sensitive, diversity-focused support and fighting xenophobia and gender-based and prejudice-based violence, Costa Rica can increase the well-being of LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers and refugees, benefit from their contributions to economic growth, enhance social cohesion, and foster a more inclusive society.

Acknowledgements

This report is the outcome of a participatory research process led by Mara Tissera Luna and Instituto sobre Migración y Refugio LGBTIQ para Centroamérica (IRCA CASABIERTA). The report was authored by Mara Tissera Luna, with support and feedback from IRCA CASABIERTA, Yael Schacher (Refugees International director for the Americas and Europe), Rachel Schmidtke (Refugees International senior advocate for Latin America), and Martha Guerrero Blé (Refugees International advocate for labor market access). 

IRCA CASABIERTA is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that addresses the needs of LGBTIQ+ migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Costa Rica, primarily from Central America.

Refugees International is an independent organization based in Washington, DC advocating for lifesaving assistance, human rights, and protection for displaced people and promoting solutions to displacement crises worldwide.

Mara Tissera Luna is an independent consultant specializing in the protection of displaced populations with multiple vulnerabilities in Latin America.

All contributing authors and researchers operate with full independence and do not accept any government or United Nations funding.

Glossary

  1. Asylum seekers and recognized refugees. In this report, we use “asylum seekers” (solicitantes de refugio) to encompass all individuals seeking asylum in Costa Rica, irrespective of their current stage in the status determination process. This includes both applicants undergoing the preliminary screening to be accepted as people seeking the status of “asylum seeker,” and those in the legal procedure to determine if they meet the criteria for official recognition as “refugees.” This recognition is based on whether they fulfill the requirements outlined in the 1951 Refugee Convention or face persecution due to gender-based violence.
  2. LGBTIQ+ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Intersex, and Queer/Questioning. LGBTIQ+ emphasizes inclusivity, acknowledging the broad and evolving spectrum of sexual and gender diversity.6
  3. Trans: An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression does not correspond with the sex assigned to them at birth, regardless of whether they have undergone surgical interventions or medical treatments.
  4. SOGIESC refers to the broader categories of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual characteristics that apply to all people. This report uses the term “LGBTIQ+” to refer to people of diverse SOGIESC. 
  5. Socio-economic integration. The focus of this report goes beyond simply securing livelihoods; it means fully integrating asylum seekers or refugees into society so they can actively contribute to the country’s economic growth and enjoy their social rights. Given the heightened vulnerability of certain LGBTIQ+ groups in Costa Rica, their successful integration is usually the result of migration, social welfare, and economic policies that welcome asylum seekers and refugees; holistic legal, livelihoods, and psycho-social support by non-governmental organizations; and non-discrimination and diversity measures by private sector actors. 
  6. Intersectionality is an analytical framework that helps shed light on the systems (racism, colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism, etc.) that create overlapping forms of oppression experienced by marginalized groups and individuals. Specific individuals and social groups can face oppression due to their simultaneous membership in multiple marginalized social categories and circumstances, such as age, race, class, sex, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, health status, and disability.
  7. Gender-based Violence (GBV): Physical, psychological, sexual, verbal, and socio-economic harm directed at an individual or a group of individuals based on their gender identity and/or gender expression. GBV is rooted in structural gender inequality, the abuse of power, and harmful norms. Women, girls, and LGBTIQ+ populations (particularly lesbian and trans women) suffer disproportionately from GBV, even if men and boys can also be targets of violence related to gender norms. 
  8. Bias-motivated violence helps us understand violence against persons who defy traditional gender norms and whose bodies differ from those of the standard of “female” and “male” body as a social phenomenon rather than an individual or isolated crime. Crimes based on prejudice represent rationalizations or justifications for negative reactions towards non-normative sexual orientations or gender identities. For it to occur, it requires a particular social context and complicity. 

Endnotes

1 By means of Presidential Decrees and a constitutional court ruling, it became possible in 2018 for people in the country, including foreigners, to change their identification documents through an administrative procedure so that they matched their gender identity and expression; the right to migration regularization for foreign same-sex couples was recognized in 2018, and marriage for all same-sex couples was legalized in 2020. The previous administration also created guidelines for the reporting of discrimination committed exclusively by public employees at government offices, and guidelines for the government to gather disaggregated data on gender identity and sexual orientation.

2 Costa Rica acceded to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol in 1978 and has ratified the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees. Its current refugee status determination (RSD) system is determined by the Ley De Migración y Extranjería de 2009 (Sección V).

3 Source for all these figures: Dirección General de Migración y Extranjeria (Last modified on April 18, 2023). Informes Estadísticos Anuales​ ​​2023. https://www.migracion.go.cr/Paginas/Centro%20de%20Documentaci%c3%b3n/Estad%c3%adsticas.aspx#collapse2022Refugio

4 Over the last decade, numerous “economic migrants” have sought refugee status in Costa Rica to attain legal residency and a work permit. This trend is influenced by more complicated and costly processes for labor migrant regularization; greater state and NGO support for refugees; and a lack of clear distinction by government officials between economic migrants, labor migrants, and those needing international protection, resulting in the frequent use of the RSD procedure for regularizing labor migrants. Source: Interviews with experts in San José, Costa Rica. 

5 The National Learning Institute has a scheme to certify technical expertise acquired through experience abroad. 

6 Terms from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights: https://www.oas.org/en/iachr/multimedia/2015/lgbti-violence/lgbti-terminology.html