Coping with uncertainty: crisis management and migration in Costa Rica (1/3)

Mixed flows of migration and complex crises

In both Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean, the sudden arrival of massive flows of migrants have posed challenges for reception facilities. Public administrations and civil society actors have had to create new practices and collaborate closer than ever to provide assistance and protection to vulnerable populations. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated situations of vulnerability but public officials have demonstrated grit and resilience by adapting their services. Complex and sudden crises also affect migration flows by driving or restricting transit through certain territories, as was the case of Costa Rica in early 2020.

After the declaration of a state of national emergency on 24 March 2020 only Costa Ricans and foreigners with regular migratory status and who had left the country before that date could enter the national territory. This new situation impacted those migrants who were transiting through Costa Rica and Nicaraguan citizens, which form the largest group by nationality of Costa Rica’s migrant population.

Faced with this scenario, the Directorate General of Migration and Foreigners under the Ministry of Governance and Police and the Ministry of Health of Costa Rica requested support from MIEUX+ to reinforce their capacities to assist migrant persons. One of the components of the Costa Rica IV Action is to develop a  protocol that will facilitate DGME’s assistance of asylum seekers and migrants entering the territory or transiting the country in vulnerable conditions during an emergency, whether caused by the arrival of large mixed flows or contingencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Crucially, the tool aims to strengthen also the cooperation between DGME and all government agencies assisting migrant persons during emergencies. These efforts are of particular importance for Nicaraguan migrants who, because of the pandemic, have been rendered unemployed and are facing difficulties crossing the border, whether going to Costa Rica or returning to Nicaragua, as both countries require COVID-19 negative tests for entry.

What can Costa Rica learn from European and Latin American peers?

Several knowledge exchange webinars have been planned for Activity 2 in order to provide an opportunity to migration practitioners and civil servants from Costa Rica to learn from experiences and practices in Europe and in Latin America and the Caribbean, creating learning spaces that will feed into the development of improved protocols for first line assistance.

For the first webinar, held in June 2021, Mexico and Peru in Latin America and Greece and the islands of Lampedusa and Linosa (Italy) in Europe were selected as examples to share with the Costa Rican peers. Over the years, all of these locations experienced high levels of arrivals of migrants with the intention of transiting through their territory onto another destination.

What was the crisis situation in Mexico?

Costa Rica and Mexico share similar experiences of being transit countries for migrant persons travelling to the United States. Costa Rica has experienced in the last decade the arrival of large flows of migrant persons originating from regional countries, like the Cuban migrants in 2015, but also increasingly persons originating from outside the Americas. Similarly, Mexico has experienced since 2018, nine waves of so-called “migrant caravans” originating from the Northern Triangle of Central America with the purpose of transiting to the United States. Both phenomena have created very complex situations for the Mexican and Costa Rican Governments, both in terms of attention to migrants and people with special vulnerabilities such as unaccompanied children and in terms of institutional resources. To face these issues, Mexico has increasingly adopted a whole-of-government approach, involving not only traditional actors such as the Mexican Commission for Refugee Aid but also its National Civil Protection System, in finding innovative solutions for the management of migratory crises in the country.

What practices did Mexico adopt?

  • Coordination with new actors: Although actors such as Mexican Commission for Refugee Aid, the National Migration Institute or other agencies are the lead institutions for migration management in Mexico, the support of the National Coordination of Civil Protection of Mexico proved instrumental for the assistance to migrant populations. Civil Protection not only provided care to the displaced migrant population during emergencies, but also conceptualised mass arrivals as a type of emergency, which enabled the Mexican institution to activate certain protocols.

  • Ad-hoc crisis management plan: Under the direction of the Ministry of Security and Citizen Protection and the Ministry of the Interior, especially the National Migration Institute and under the coordination of the National Civil Protection Coordination, the Migrant Caravan Assistance Plan was launched, in which all federal agencies as well as UNICEF, IOM and UNHCR participated. According to the Assistance Plan, reception of migrants consisted of immediate medical attention, food, hydration and information at the entry point; registration and distribution of identification bracelets that allowed the migrant access the services offered as well as initiate and conclude the management of his/her migratory procedure.

  • Vertical cooperation: Mexico’s federal political and administrative system ensures autonomy for many of the institutions responsible for assistance and protection of vulnerable groups, including migrants in transit. Hence, when faced with crisis management, all institutions at federal, state, and municipal level had to come together, align their procedures, and cooperate in an efficient manner in order to provide assistance and protection to migrants.

What was the crisis situation in Peru?

Although usually thought of as transit country, an estimated 10% of the population in Costa Rica is foreign-born. Likewise, Peru has become over the years a destination country, especially for Venezuelans wishing to migrate or seeking asylum, while continuing to experience several smaller flows, especially from Haiti, en route to North America. As a consequence, there has been an exponential growth in the number of foreign-born population: from 80,000 registered migrants in Peru in 2017, the current figures estimate the number at 1,2 million. This sudden influx has created a new reality that the Peruvian Government and public administration have responded to with a series of practices.

What were the practices that Peru adopted?

  • Legislative changes: In 2017, there was a revision to the National Migration Policy, including the creation of the Intersectoral Roundtable for Migration to reinforce plans for integration and regularisation of migrants.

  • Extraordinary measures to ensure inclusion: The Peruvian Government extended new work permissions and a virtual ID card in order to circumvent the restrictions on face to face assistance caused by the pandemic. Government services were extended to cover 24-hour shifts for registration and case procedure.

  • Data-driven government policies: sociodemographic data is collected through online forms and a survey asks migrants in Peru about their needs. The results from this survey will feed policy-making in the area of migration in the years to come.

  • Border management: reinforced border procedures enabled the registration and collection of biometric data at border check points, which enabled the public administration to register newcomers and for all government services to access this information swiftly.

  • Digital Agency for Migration: 99% of migration procedures can be done online, which has enabled government departments and agencies to provide services for migrant populations all over the territory.

What was the crisis situation in Greece?

While Costa Rica is largely considered a stable country in economic and social terms, the mounting internal debt and overall world crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact of the resources dedicated to manage migratory crises. Likewise, a fragile economic situation was the less-than-favourable backdrop to massive flows of migration that began in 2015 in Greece. Severe challenges related to the coordination of assistance, the identification of vulnerable groups and registration procedures ensued, which have been compounded by the onset of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, both countries have put efforts to adopt strategies that centre of human rights and social protections. To face these challenges and provide adequate levels of protection for migrants, the Government of Greece and its public administration, which includes the Human Rights Office of the Greek Ombudsman, adopted a series of practices, as well as changes in legislation and in operative protocols.

What practices did Greece adopt?

  • Institutional framework: Under the overall authority of the Ministry of Migration and Asylum, the new posts of Deputy Minister for Refugee Integration and a Special Secretary for the Coordination of Key Actors as well as a Special Secretariat for the Protection of Unaccompanied minors were created. These changes were introduced to strengthen coordination among all parties.

  • Multi-stakeholder cooperation: Aside from improving the institutional framework to create an enabling environment, the emphasis was on streamlining registration procedures for asylum seekers through cooperation with international actors such as UNHCR or EU agencies FRONTEX and the European Asylum Support Office, but also cooperation with civil society actors.

  • Digitalisation: Enabled faster processing times of many asylum case procedures, including self-registration. This included sending asylum applications by email, auto-completion of online forms, as well as other migration procedures for obtaining and renewing documents.

  • Independent accommodation: A system for independent rental units in various cities is managed by UNHCR. The aim is to provide good living conditions and integration at local level.

  • Prevention of discrimination: Migrant children were enrolled in school, information campaigns were created to address the foreign and local population, and channels for the participation of migrants in local activities were opened with the overall aim to promote social inclusion.

What was the crisis situation in Lampedusa and Linosa?

In many parts of the world migratory crisis have gone from occasional and punctual events to a constant issue fully embedded in local realities. Therefore, the framing of these phenomena as “crises” does not provide a suitable backdrop to coordinate first-line responses and provide durable solutions for migrants, especially at the local level. In its own migratory context, the Costa Rican government has had to seek solutions to not only attend migrants, foster inclusion but also to prevent and combat xenophobia in host communities. Comparably, the small islands of Lampedusa and Linosa (Italy) in the Central Mediterranean Sea have witnessed dramatic arrivals by boats over the last thirty years. This has put an enormous strain on the small municipality that nevertheless has built a reputation of inclusion due the practices tested and established.

What were the practices that Lampedusa and Linosa adopted?

  • EU-wide cooperation: The islands have sought cooperation with 19 border municipalities all over Europe to recognise their special role in providing assistance and reception to migrants arriving on their territories through an EU-funded programme called Snapshots from the borders. The project intends to strengthen a new horizontal, active network among cities directly facing migration flows at EU borders, as a way to promote more effective policy coherence at all levels (European, national, local).

  • Countering misinformation: The Mayor of Lampedusa and Linosa publicly declared against some of myths that started circulating about migration and the pandemic during the early months of 2020. The Mayor is also promoting a new European Remembrance Day to honour the 350+ victims of a shipwreck trying to reach Lampedusa shores on 03 October 2013.

  • The Lampedusa Charter: Under the coordination of the Executive Bureau of United Cities and Local Government, Lampedusa and Linosa are advocating for the Lampedusa Charter, which aims to re-write the narrative on European migration and is inspired by the principles enshrined in the Global Compact for Migration.

Creating learning spaces for public administration peers

The practices abovementioned point to the need for lean and flexible administrations to manage sudden and massive migration flows as humanitarian emergencies. Complementary to first-line assistance and protection for vulnerable groups are communication campaigns targeting both migrants and the local population as well as measures to ensure socio-economic integration. By sharing their experiences among peers, MIEUX+ contributes to creating an environment where the knowledge and praxis of public administrations can be replicated, adapted and contextualised to face the multidimensional nature of mixed migration flows.