A new assistance protocol for Costa Rica

In both Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean, mixed migration flows have posed challenges for reception authorities. Public administrations and civil society actors have had to create new practices and collaborate closer than ever to provide assistance and protection to vulnerable migrant populations. In a normal scenario, this is already challenging, but the COVID-19 pandemic has added a new layer of complexity for migration governance and management, because of restrictions on cross-border movements, the need for repatriation, access to healthcare, or sudden unemployment, to name a few. After the declaration of a state of national emergency on 24 March 2020, only Costa Ricans and foreigners with regular migratory status and those who had left the country before that date could enter the national territory. This new situation affected migrants who were in transit through Costa Rica, especially Nicaraguan citizens, the largest group by nationality among Costa Rica’s migrant population.

Seeking to respond to these pressing issues, 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 migrants.

One of the components of the Costa Rica IV Action is to develop a protocol that will facilitate assistance to asylum seekers and migrant persons entering or transiting the country in vulnerable conditions during an emergency, whether the contingency is due to a sanitary crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic or is caused by the arrival of large mixed migratory flows. Crucially, the protocol will aim to strengthen the cooperation between DGME and the government agencies assisting migrant persons during all types of emergencies.

Peer-exchange on migration management during the COVID-19 pandemic

In order to draft a well-informed protocol, Activity 2 of the Costa Rica IV Action organised a series of knowledge exchange events in June and July 2021 with peers from public administrations in Europe and other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In the first article of this series, we described several lessons learned and practices shared by the Governments of Greece, Mexico and Peru and the local authority of Lampedusa and Linosa in Italy in terms of managing migratory crises. The second article of the series focuses on the practices presented during the second webinar held in July. Representatives from different stakeholders, including public administrations in Norway, Portugal, Slovakia, and Spain, as well as the European External Action Service (EEAS), explained how they adapted their practices to a completely different “crisis scenario”, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Slovakia and border management during COVID-19

One of the most visible effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were the restrictions on human mobility due to public health concerns. In Costa Rica, it became apparent that while health authorities were to be in the lead, migratory authorities would need to play a key role in the management of the pandemic in order to strike a balance between the need to enforce the measures and addressing nascent challenges to border management. Likewise, Slovakia has had to navigate the new challenges posed by the pandemic due to their condition as part of the highly integrated EU-bloc but also as a Member State geographically situated on the EU external borders.

What practices did the Government of Slovakia adopt?

  • Reintroduction of internal borders with the EU Member States: due to the exceptional situation, and in the case of air arrivals, the division between Schengen and non-Schengen arrivals and departures no longer made sense, as border controls were carried out in both cases.
  • Creation of a COVID traffic light system for the borders: based on guidance from the health authorities, the government would decide which phase to activate with its corresponding protocols.
  • “Green lanes” to ensure the flow of transport of goods and people: in spite of the reintroduction of borders, it was important in order to ensure that medical supplies reached their destination or that people could cross borders for professional reasons or to receive medical treatment.
  • Multi-stakeholder cooperation: Cooperation between national and local government, healthcare, armed forces, and fire and rescue departments became essential to uphold the state-mandated quarantine policy for travellers entering Slovakia, including registration at border and transport to designated quarantine facilities under police supervision. In addition, the central coordinating body for large-scale crisis management, the Central Crisis Staff, is chaired by the Minister of the Interior and includes all relevant central, regional and local administrative authorities. As an ad hoc response to the COVID-19 crisis, a permanent Secretariat was established in the Office of the Government of the Slovak Republic to ensure more regular meetings of all relevant experts and representatives of the government and administration at national, regional and local.
  • Increased capacities for border officials: Ensuring that officials at border checkpoints were up to date with the latest measures and are able to understand them well enough to explain them to each individual entering Slovak territory.
  • Redefining what is a crisis: perhaps one of the most interesting aspects in relation to migration was the fact that the Bureau of Border and Foreign Police had protocols for crises based exclusively on large volumes of migration flows and hence were unprepared to deal with the COVID-19 health emergency. Enlarging the scope and definition of crisis to encompass several areas will facilitate the work of border management in the future.

Consular assistance to EU citizens - EU Delegation to Costa Rica

In the past countries have had to assist their citizens abroad during an emergency, but usually in one given location at a time. Like in the rest of the world, the pandemic tested Costa Rican authorities’ ability to deploy resources effectively in different locations simultaneously. EU Member States faced similar issues, but were able to rely on EU Consular protection mechanisms that facilitated the repatriation of their citizens. EU Delegations, such as the one the San Jose, played an important role in coordinating efforts.

What practices did the EU Delegation adopt?

  • Coordinating role for the repatriation of stranded EU citizens: Although EU Delegations do not count with dedicated staff for consular assistance, it was necessary to adopt this role given that many EU citizens that were present as tourists in Costa Rica when the state of emergency was declared in March 2020 did not have their own embassy in the country. 
  • Multi-stakeholder coordination: Daily meetings and contacts with the Minister Counsellors of the five EU embassies that were present in Costa Rica to identify needs and share updates, as well as liaising with representatives of the remainder 22 Member States without delegations on site.
  • Fast designation of honorary consuls: A network of contacts was identified, including honorary consuls in Costa Rica, Consuls and diplomatic staff based in embassies in the region as well as civilians who might have information about the citizens of EU-27 Member States.
  • Redefinition of contingency plans: A common contingency plan, including risk assessments, emergency contacts and evacuation plans was developed in early 2019 just weeks before the COVID-19 hit. However, it focused on natural disasters and excluded pandemics, which meant that it could only act as a partial reference for the course of action to follow during the consular crisis. As the situation escalated, the EU Delegation had to constantly adapt to the situation and respond to repatriation needs from EU citizens.

Portugal - assistance to foreign citizens in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic

In the last year and a half, it has been often highlighted that while many migrants played an essential role in the COVID-19 response, the pandemic has had particular consequences on their livelihoods and created new vulnerabilities. Costa Rican authorities have had to seek solutions to mitigate the effects on Nicaraguan labour migrants, who contribute significantly to the national economy. Similarly, Portuguese authorities including the High Commission for Migration have had to adapt to coordinate their assistance to foreign citizens in their territory.

What practices did the Government of Portugal adopt?

  • Repatriation of Portuguese citizens: over 2 million Portuguese citizens were abroad as migrants or tourists, therefore, as a matter of priority the Portuguese Government fleeted military and commercial flights to return citizens to their territory.
  • Stranded citizens on Portuguese territory: coordination with other European Governments to accommodate EU migrants in a safe manner whilst they were stranded on Portuguese territory because of border closures with Spain and awaiting their repatriation.
  • Resettling in decent accommodation: given new sanitary measures in place, the Government quickly realised that accommodation in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions was not uncommon among the migrant population. Hence it became a priority to rehouse migrants in accommodations that could provide a safe environment.
  • Considering internal migration flows: international migration flows are not the only ones that need to be taken into account when planning for contingencies. In the case of Portugal, the Government reviewed internal migration flows linked to seasonal work to predict where there could be new sudden population movements or overcrowding.
  • Provisional regularisation: a regularisation was extended for all irregular migrants with pending regularisation cases to access all social protection measures until December 2021. This enabled over 350,000 migrants to access services during the pandemic.

Access to medical services for irregular or stranded migrants in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic in Norway and Spain

Most importantly, the pandemic has underlined the importance of reliable medical health systems and the need to address inequalities in access to health care. Although Costa Rica’s health system is one of the best in Latin America and the Caribbean, the pandemic overstretched its capacities and resources as well as creating new challenges. Europe was for months the epicentres of the pandemic. To support public health institutions in establishing evidence-based policies, actors such as the European Public Health Association and its Migrant and Ethnic Minority Health section continuously developed and disseminated knowledge with the contributions of its members and partners such as the Spanish Society of Public Health and Health Administration (SESPAS) and the Pandemic Centre at University of Bergen (Norway).  

What are the lessons learned and Practices from Norway?

  • Extending access to health care: Access to health care for irregular migrants is limited to basic treatment, but there are very few migrants in that situation. With the pandemic, all migrants were incorporated into the health care system regardless of migratory status. This experience proved that it is more cost effective to provide food, shelter and preventive care for irregular migrants than to provide hospitalisation and intensive care.
  • Adaptation of pandemic contingency plans: these plans existed, but focused on preventing the spread of influenza and hence had to be adapted.
  • Whole-of-society approach: Between government authorities, but also with migrant communities and organisations themselves. It was detected that migrants were tested less frequently due to multiple factors such as lack of information or knowledge about the process, lack of links to local health services, and limited understanding of the language. Through collaboration between the Norwegian health authorities and leaders of migrant organisations and communities, information campaigns were launched to explain access to the tests, the lack of fees, the convenience of avoiding contagion in the family, and this led to migrant populations having a higher rate of testing than the native-born population.

What are the lessons learned and Practices from Spain?

  • Redefining emergency protocols: Similar to Norway, there were protocols for emergencies, but mainly for local emergencies such as heatwaves or massive levels of contagion, but not for a pandemic of the magnitude of COVID-19.
  • Protection of vulnerable groups: In light of the pandemic, the protocol for the reception of unaccompanied migrant children arriving in Spain had to be revised.

Contingency planning, coordination and right-based approaches needed

As can be inferred by the list of practices shared during the event, many public administrations have faced similar challenges since the onset of COVID-19. Starting with the need for a revision of the definition of crisis itself so that a pandemic would be included, the inadequacy of contingency plans and emergency protocols, the immense pressure put on available human resources and the lack of knowledge on this important topic.

Several speakers pointed to the need for a multidisciplinary and multisector approach for migrants' access to health care services on a permanent basis as the best preparation for future health emergencies and as a way to reduce overall inequality, in line with GCM Objective 7 and SDG 10 and MICIC guideline 11. Extending temporary regularisation measures, as was the case in Portugal, also facilitates these goals.

For many government agencies and departments working with migrants, the COVID-19 pandemic brought to light many structural problems that already existed and that migrants face, such as lack of overall information, limited knowledge of the national health system, and understanding of the local language, among others. However, it is encouraging that many identified multi-level and multi-stakeholder coordination as the crucial element to overcome initial difficulties, in line with one of the main working methodologies in MIEUX+ Actions.

Creating learning spaces for public administration peers

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 govern the multidimensional nature of mixed migration flows.

The Costa Rica IV Action involved multiple public administrations sharing their successful practices, common challenges and lessons learned. The next event is planned for September and will focus on preparedness for emergencies and disasters affecting migrants and refugees by having discussions centred on the application of the different MICIC guidelines.

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