University of New Hampshire
Political Science and International Affairs
Mentor: Dr. Mary Malone, UNH Department of Political Science
Will Costa Rica Take the “Tired, Poor Huddled Masses, Yearning to Breathe Free?”: Assessing Public Policy and Public Opinion towards Refugees in Costa Rica
The issue of refugees and who takes responsibility for their well being has been a moral dilemma faced by some of the wealthiest and stable nations in the world. Costa Rica, Latin America’s oldest democracy, blessed with its own stability in historically unstable Central America, has publicly displayed an attitude of tolerance towards refugees that few other of its neighbors have been willing or able to provide. Chief among acts of generosity have been accepting immigrants from the conflicts and crises of its neighbors during their Civil Wars in the 70’s and 80’s, as well as providing sanctuary to refugees since the influx of Jewish people fleeing Hitler’s Germany in the 1930’s.
The current attitudes towards refuges however are decidedly different. Since 1979, around 150,000 refugees have come into Costa Rica from Nicaragua and El Salvador (Fernandez, 1987). According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: Costa Rica reportedly offers refuge for 12,000 displaced people currently, and of that amount 40% report being victims of intolerance, job discrimination or insult. Does this indicate that refugees and immigrants in general, have lost an important ally in Central and South America?
Fundamentally, this research attempts to understand Costa Rica’s historical policy towards refugees and immigrants. The assumption here is that there is a definitive link between the origin of Costa Rica’s long democratic history and its tolerant attitude towards refugees. In addressing the present, scholar Jeremy Hein (1993) suggests that the solutions to refugee migration are most influenced by foreign policy, domestic pressure groups, and fiscal concerns. James Wiley (1995) expands on this and on the nature of Costa Rican democracy saying that “Costa Rica’s is a long standing democracy in which public opinion matters” (p. 42). If there is a negative attitude towards refugees among the citizens of Costa Rica, the sensitivity of the Costa Rican democratic structure ensures public policy will be responsive to that opinion. It is possible then that public policy may take on a similar attitude and reduce allowances, programs, funding, and protection for refugees. This research will identify both the causes of Costa Rican tolerance in the past, and how current indicators have affected attitudes towards refugees today.