“Francisco”* should be in Europe, but he’s been left stranded in Costa Rica after arriving there via an unmarked border crossing. He fled to Costa Rica after authorities at the Nicaraguan Migration Office discovered he was a journalist and took away his passport. Once across the border, he tried to resolve this setback, knocking on every possible door, from human rights organizations to embassies. However, apparently his case was something new, and there were no protocols for responding. He was advised to seek asylum and wait.
He applied for asylum in Costa Rica in September 2021, and received notification that his first appointment was scheduled for July 2027. Francisco resigned himself to the situation. “There was nothing I could do. The solution was out of my hands, and I’m only left to sit and wait,” he stated. His case represents a growing problematic among Nicaraguans, who’ve found themselves obligated to go into exile because of the political persecution of the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo; however, this same dictatorship takes away or denies them their travel documents.
Nicaraguans like Francisco, whose passports have been taken when they tried to leave the country, must face their exile without this vital document. Others find themselves in a similar situation because their passport has expired. When they tried to renew it, the Nicaraguan Consulate in Costa Rica denied them their right to a current document. There are some who remain unable to renew their documents more than four years after leaving the country due to the 2018 sociopolitical crisis.
Living in a foreign country without a passport, these Nicaraguans face a number of limitations. Francisco had problems with his bank transactions, and couldn’t even sign a cellphone contract in his name. For his first rental contract in Costa Rica, where he’s still marooned, he took the risk of putting down his passport number, uncertain whether he’d be asked for it at any moment and then be unable to show it. “There was no way I could prove that I was who I said I was,” he recalled, speaking about the process he had to go through to make a new life without any identification.
There are a lot of similar cases, but there are no formal statistics on this problem, affirms exiled Nicaraguan attorney Gonzalo Carrion, a member of the Nicaragua Nunca Mas [“Never Again for Nicaragua”] Human Rights Collective.
There are some well-known cases, such as that of Monica Baltodano, a former Sandinista guerrilla turned critic of the Ortega regime. In her case, the Nicaraguan Consulate in San Jose ordered her to apply for her passport renewal in Nicaragua, with full knowledge that she can’t return there, due to the FSLN persecution of such opposition leaders.
As the number of Nicaraguans in Costa Rica grows, the number of cases like these has multiplied.
Carmen* is a former student at Managua’s Nicaraguan National Autonomous University (UNAN). Due to her participation in anti-government protests, she was expelled. After staying in several safe houses, she went into exile in Costa Rica. Before leaving Nicaragua, she attempted to solicit her passport, but at the Nicaraguan Migration Office they set up a series of obstacles as a way of denying it to her. Impelled by fears of being jailed, she decided to leave the country without a passport.
In Costa Rica, Carmen tried to renew the request. Two years ago, she went to the Nicaraguan Consulate. They allowed her to pay and fill out all the paperwork, but when she contacted them to find out if the document would be issued to her or not, they responded: “Go to Nicaragua, they have your passport there.” With that instruction, she resigned herself to her situation. “Clearly they’re not going to give it to me.”
With no passport, Carmen can’t apply for scholarships to continue studying, nor has she been able to participate in international activities denouncing the human rights violations in Nicaragua, which is one area of her work in Costa Rica.
What options are there for exiled Nicaraguans without passports?
Francisco and Carmen must wait for their asylum cases to advance. If they are officially declared refugees, they could opt for a travel document or Costa Rican passport. The time these processes take is different in each case. Carmen began the paperwork to officially request asylum four years ago, but still continues waiting for the document accrediting her as a refugee. Francisco has an appointment scheduled for 2027, although he was recently included in a pilot program for speeding up the processing of asylum seekers’ requests. He hopes this will allow him to move forward with his plans.
“You can only apply for a travel document once you have official refugee status, not when you’re just requesting it,” clarifies Attorney Gonzalo Carrion. The problem of this alternative for Nicaraguans in Costa Rica without a passport is the long wait.
From 2018 to June 2022, the Costa Rican office of Immigration and Foreign Affairs received 155,854 asylum requests from Nicaraguans. Of these, only 3,969 Nicaraguans have had their cases resolved.
In mid-July of 2022, Costa Rican Foreign Minister Arnoldo Andre Tinoco warned: “immigration has surpassed all reasonable limits. We’re receiving 500 requests daily, which means that the wait time for an appointment is seven years.”
United States: a similar panorama
Roger* arrived in the US by air, just four months before his passport expired. He didn’t want to leave Nicaragua and his family, but he felt pressured to do so out of fear of being jailed once again. While still in his own country, he turned in the request to renew his passport and waited week after week for it to be issued to him. The delay still continues.
He maintains his plans to go to the Nicaraguan Consulate in Miami to file a new request for his document, but he fears the same reprisals as in Nicaragua. Without his passport, he affirmed, “I’m not from here, nor from there.”
He’s asked his friends what other options he has to resolve his problem but has encountered nothing better than wait for his asylum process in the United States to be resolved. He feels like he’s in a migratory limbo.
*Note: All persons quoted in the article are using assumed names for reasons of security.