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SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — After four years of trying to pursue his studies in Nicaragua, Elthon Rivera has finally come to the same conclusion as thousands of his compatriots. The government closed his university, his director told him he was going into exile and warned that the police were also coming for Rivera.

Rivera inspected the various safe houses he used after his arrest in 2018 and found that there was no one left who had sheltered him. “The only option is to go to Costa Rica, which is the closest I have and where I have the most contacts,” he said. He snuck out of Nicaragua along a trail over a mountain in February and quickly caught a bus to San Jose.

Rivera immediately applied for asylum. The Costa Rican government gave him an appointment to formalize his request – in 2030.

Since the summer of 2021, when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega locked up dozens of political opponents ahead of presidential elections in November, Nicaraguans have been seeking asylum in Costa Rica at the highest level since the Nicaraguan political crisis erupted in April 2018.

The exodus of Nicaraguans fleeing political repression has rocked neighboring Costa Rica’s asylum system under the weight of claims that stretch even beyond the 1980s, when civil wars ravaged Central America.

Asylum seekers now represent 4% of the population of Costa Rica. Although it has only 5 million citizens, Costa Rica is second only to the United States, Germany and Mexico in the number of asylum applications it received last year. according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Costa Rican authorities now confirm over 200,000 pending applications and another 50,000 people are waiting for their appointment to make an official application. Nicaraguans represent nearly nine out of 10 candidates.

Asylum seekers are adding pressure to President Rodrigo Chaves’ new administration trying to revive an economy hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been an incredible increase,” said Allan Rodríguez, deputy director of Costa Rica’s immigration agency, which also oversees the asylum system. “It tested the capacity of the administration. It made us reinvent ourselves not only in the hosting process, but also in how to solve this problem.

Rodríguez said the system has been strengthened in terms of its ability to accept asylum applications – the UN refugee agency has hired 50 people to help it – but remaining challenges include resolving cases quickly. and the integration of asylum seekers into Costa Rican society.

Rivera, 28, was in his final year of medical school at Nicaragua’s largest public university and had no particular interest in politics when protests erupted in April 2018 in response to changes to the social security system. . Police brutalized elderly people who took to the streets, so university students came out in support of pensioners.

Rivera made his rounds at a hospital the next day and saw injured students pouring in. On the second day of the protests, the police beat him and threw him in a dirty cell for six hours before releasing him. The arrest made him a leader among other medical students, which ultimately got him expelled.

He then enrolled in a private university as a political science major because it had no medical school and was missing a few classes to complete his degree when Ortega’s government shut down. the school and a number of other private universities in February.

Even with his asylum nomination eight years away, he said, “I’ve stayed calm about it because I know there are a lot of Nicaraguans here and Costa Rica is a very small country.”

Xaviera Molina, 27, has already been granted asylum because she left Nicaragua during one of the first waves in July 2018.

Molina, a marketing major, was a single mother at the time in her second year of college. She had never been involved in activism, but when students expanded the protest against Ortega’s government, she got involved, first distributing food, then helping to provide medical care to students. wounded.

“I was basically a nurse by accident,” Molina said.

The government has stepped up its crackdown on protests, mounting an operation in July 2018 to clear barricades protesters had erected around resistance neighborhoods across Nicaragua. Molina went into hiding and then decided she had to leave the country.

Molina crossed the border into Costa Rica, applied for asylum and was granted it last October. She stayed a year and a half without seeing her daughter who had stayed with her parents in Nicaragua.

She said the process was slow, but she was able to work, open her own catering business and bring her daughter to Costa Rica.

“I know people who have been here for four years like me and they still haven’t accepted that they have to stay,” Molina said. “They still haven’t bought a bed because they feel like any moment they’re going to go back.”

Last March, US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas met with officials in Costa Rica. The Biden administration was interested in seeing Costa Rica and Mexico, two countries with relatively robust asylum systems, continue to take in as many asylum seekers as possible.

In his State of the Union address that month, Biden said, “We are securing commitments and supporting partners in South and Central America to welcome more refugees and secure their own borders.

The U.S. government has donated nearly $49 million to international organizations and nongovernmental organizations for humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants in Costa Rica between 2017 and 2021.

At the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles in June, Costa Rica said it planned to renew a special protection category it had created for citizens of Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela whose initial asylum claims had been refused. The reasoning was that it was not safe to send them back to their country.

Diego Pérez, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Costa Rica, said that with the COVID-19 pandemic, Costa Rica’s asylum system no longer has “the same capacity to absorption or integration (of asylum seekers), including in the labor market”. .”

Gabriela Nuñez, Costa Rican director of the American refugee support organization HIAS, notes that before the Nicaraguan crisis, Costa Rica used to receive around 5,000 asylum applications a year. Now the country receives more than that in a month.

“There is an urgency in terms of how many people are seeking access to the territory, the process and finally how many are finally recognized,” Nuñez said.

Now, some fear that the years-long wait for a nomination will cause more Nicaraguans to turn north – to Mexico or the United States – than at any point in the political crisis of more than four years from their country.

As of August this year, 6,921 Nicaraguans have sought asylum in Mexico – often a stopover on the US border – more than double the number in 2021.

In the first 10 months of fiscal year 2022, U.S. border agents encountered Nicaraguans 134,000 times, up from more than 50,000 the previous year.

For the most part, however, Costa Rica remains the first choice for Nicaraguans seeking safety, due to its proximity, familiarity and possible family ties.

Still, it can be a difficult transition. Costa Rica is more expensive. Nicaraguans forced to flee quickly cannot take much with them; professional certifications are not transferable; it takes time to determine in which year children should enter a different education system.

Three months after applying for asylum, applicants can start working legally. But many said some employers did not recognize the government-issued card identifying them as asylum seekers.

Rivera tries to make the most of it. He founded an organization called Bridges for Nicaraguan Students, which aims to help exiled students find ways to continue their education.

Soon, Rivera will travel to Romania to resume his medical studies, but he does not plan to stop his political activism.

Leaving Nicaragua, Rivera remembers thinking, “I’m going to bother them more there, keep talking there, keep raising my voice there.”

Sherman reported from Mexico. AP video journalist Berny Araya in San Jose contributed to this report.