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Nicaraguan migration in numbers

10.8% of the population has emigrated. CONFIDENCIAL compiled official data on Nicaraguan migrants in the main destination countries

The Nicas Migrantes coverage with a human rights approach has become a pressing need after 500 000 Nicaraguans have left the country since 2018

Katherine Estrada Téllez

22 de septiembre 2021


Nicaragua, particularly during the last forty years, has been characterized by the emigration of a significant part of its population. Although the reasons are diverse, the predominant ones are economic, political and the consequences of natural events such as earthquakes and hurricanes. 

Lack of employment, low income, the war of the 1970s and 1980s and, more recently, the country's socio-political crisis since 2018, have driven hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans to leave, albeit regularly or irregularly. 

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 718 000 Nicaraguans have emigrated as of mid-2020, out of a total population of 6.6 million, or the equivalent of 10.8% of the population. However, this number may exceed 800,000, if one takes into account the data recorded by the main countries receiving Nicaraguan migrants and the fact that many people migrate in an irregular manner. 

In addition, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, for its acronym in Spanish) reports that more than 108 000 Nicaraguans have been forced to leave their country since the socio-political crisis of 2018. 

The top three destinations for Nicaraguans are Costa Rica, the United States and Spain, followed by Panama and Canada.

The population of Nicaraguan migrants is significant, not just because of its size, but also because of their economic contribution to their home country, which has become a type of “lifeline” for the economy, which has been in crisis since 2018. Nicaraguans abroad send some 12,621.5 million dollars in remittances to their families in Nicaragua, which constitutes 14.6% of the Gross Domestic Product. 

According to the report of the Central Bank of Nicaragua, up until May 2021, Nicaraguans received US$152.4 million more than what was captured in the first five months of 2020, when they totaled US$705.9 million in remittances. 

Up to that date, the remittances came from the United States (535.6 million dollars, or 62.4%), followed by Spain (128.8 million dollars, equivalent to 15% of the total) and Costa Rica (109.8 million dollars, or 12.8%), according to official information. This was followed by Panama (3.5%) and Canada (1.3%). These five countries together accounted for 95% of the total, according to the source.

CONFIDENCIAL gathered the information through official sources from different countries and international and local organizations, to portray the Nicaraguan migrant community in its three main destinations as accurately as possible.

Nicaraguans in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is the country with one of the highest proportions of immigrants in Latin America. According to the National Institute of Statistics and Census, based on data from the 2020 Household Survey (ENAHO), 80% of the foreign population living in Costa Rica was born in Nicaragua. 

According to the most recent Population Census, dating from 2011, there were 287,766 Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica. However, specialists in migration issues claim that the Nicaraguan population in Costa Rica is not fully included in surveys, censuses and institutional databases, so the data often underestimate the real situation of this population. 

The Diagnosis of the Migratory Context of Costa Rica 2017, indicates that 350 000 Nicaraguans live in the country, to which irregular immigrants would be added, a number that is around 100 000 and 200 000 people. There is also seasonal migration, of people who move to Costa Rica during the harvests of the main agricultural products and then return to their country of origin.

Although there is data and information that confirms the existence of irregular migration, experts state that migratory phenomena are difficult to portray in their entirety through figures. 

As of 2018, due to the Nicaraguan crisis caused by the repression of the Ortega Murillo regime, the Directorate of Migration and Foreigners registered more than 77 thousand refugee applications until mid-2021. 

According to ENAHO, by 2020 there were more than 250,000 Nicaraguans in urban areas and less than 100,000 in rural areas. The 2011 National Census indicates that the provinces where most Nicaraguans reside are San José, Alajuela and Heredia.

The study conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in November 2018 called Aspects of Nicaraguan Migration in Costa Rica indicates that 59% of Nicaraguan migrants are between 13 and 40 years old; that is, they are in full productive age, which is congruent with their intention to get a job and insert themselves into the labor market. 

The same study reveals that since 2010, women have represented slightly more than half of the Nicaraguan immigrant population in Costa Rica. By 2016, they represented 54% of all migrants.

Although slightly above male migration, the feminization of migration becomes more relevant when analyzing fertility rates according to the nationality of the mother, highlights that study. 

In 2020, 17.7% of births in the neighboring country were to Nicaraguan mothers. According to Gustavo Gática, researcher of the Center for Research in Culture and Development (CICDE), this contribution that the Nicaraguan community is making in the country, stimulates the demographic structure of the country. He assures that it is a fact that also allows the amount of binational families that exist in the country to become more visible. 

As described in the study How Immigrants Contribute to the Economy of Developing Countries produced in 2018 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the International Labor Organization (ILO), male Nicaraguan immigrants are heavily represented in crops such as coffee, orange and sugarcane, pineapple, cassava and citrus. They also work in the construction sector. 

The majority of Nicaraguan women in Costa Rica work in domestic services and commerce. 

Of this population, 16.6% work in agriculture, 16.7% in construction, 15.7% in domestic work, 15.1% in commerce, and, to a lesser extent, 10.5% in industry. Less than 5% occupy professional jobs - at the scientific and intellectual level - as well as technical and mid-level professional jobs.

According to ENAHO, in Costa Rica in 2020, almost 100,000 Nicaraguan salaried workers are insured by their employer and almost 120,000 have other types of insurance. More than 120 thousand Nicaraguans do not have social security.

During 2021, thanks to an agreement between the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, and Costa Rica, ten thousand Nicaraguan refugee claimants and refugees in Costa Rica will have health insurance.

Foreigners working in Costa Rica, the majority of whom are Nicaraguan, contribute 12 percent to the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to the OECD and ILO study. 

The wages of Nicaraguan-born workers are equivalent to 60 percent of the wages earned by Costa Rican-born workers, and the difference is more marked for women.

According to the ENAHO study "Costa Rica: Population living in poverty according to country of birth", 47 out of every 100 people born in Nicaragua lived in poverty or extreme poverty in 2020. Gática indicates that it should be kept in mind that, in general, poverty increased in Costa Rica as a result of the pandemic and this affected foreigners the most.

A recent United Nations report on hate speech and discrimmination on social networks conducted in Costa rica revealed that xenophobia is the main cause of this discourse, and the most affected population is Nicaraguan. 

This study captured more than 181,000 xenophobic conversations on social networks between May 2020 and June 2021. Eighty percent of the hate and discrimination messages were with clear intent and 76% of them were made by men. 

Nicas in the United States 

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, ECLAC, indicates that Nicaraguan migration to the United States is older than that of Costa Rica, and is originally made up of political exiles and high-income families.  

An estimated 464,000 Nicaraguans resided in the United States in 2017, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

The same analysis indicates that one-twelfth of the largest population of Hispanic origin living in the United States is Nicaraguan.

The U.S. Census Bureau's 2017 American Community Survey also records that the Nicaraguan population is concentrated in Florida (36%), California (29%) and Texas (6%).

According to the social anthropologist, Juan Carlos Vargas, principal investigator of the project Ethno-survey on migration: Nicaragua-Costa Rica-United States, in the northern country there is a greater relative presence of children under 15 and over 60 years of age among migrants to the United States, which may be indicative of family or family group migration. 

The Pew Research Center analysis estimates that the average age of Nicaraguans is 34 years old.

According to the same report, Nicaraguans have successfully integrated into the U.S. economy and society. 

So far in May of this year, Nicaraguans residing in the United States have contributed 62.4% of the remittances arriving to the country so far in 2021. 

ECLAC records that the Nicaraguan population in the United States has higher levels of education than the Costa Rican migratory group and comes from urban sectors of Managua. It is a more permanent migration, associated, in part, to the difficulty to enter this country. 

Nicas in Spain

According to the census data published by the National Institute of Statistics of Spain, in January 2021 this country recorded a little more than 57,000 Nicaraguans in 2020, that is, registered in a municipality as inhabitants. Some migrant assistance organizations estimate that this could easily be doubled, since there are many migrants in irregular migratory status. 

From July 2018 onwards, more than 25,000 Nicaraguans arrived escaping the political persecution of the current government, and the political, economic and social crisis. Of these, almost 6,000 have applied for asylum, according to the Asylum and Refugee Office of the Spanish Ministry of the Interior, with Nicaragua being the country with the fourth highest number of applications.

According to the Ministry of the Interior of that European country, between January 1 and December 31 of last year, there were 4360 favorable results for the applicants and, within these, more than a thousand Nicaraguans obtained political asylum in Spain during 2020, representing 25.6% of the approved applications.

The majority of Nicaraguan migrants in Spain are young people who move in search of employment and better life opportunities. Mainly women arrive, and according to the National Institute of Statistics in 2020, there were more than 40,000 Nicaraguan women residing in the country.  

Nicaraguans in Spain reside mainly in Madrid, Zaragoza, Gipuzkoa and Seville, as recorded by the INE in its census for 2020.

An investigation titled "Un arraigo sobre el alambre" reveals that 75% of migrants in Spain perform elementary and precarious jobs. Only 25% are employed in service jobs with medium and high qualifications.

Most of the Nicas in Spain work as caregivers for the elderly, as nannies or babysitters, as domestic workers, in agriculture, construction and cleaning, according to a recent census carried out by the Nicaragüita Association, which collected information on more than 3,000 Nicaraguan migrants last April.

This article was orignally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff


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Katherine Estrada Téllez

Katherine Estrada Téllez

Periodista nicaragüense exiliada en Costa Rica. Se ha especializado en la cobertura de temas de migración, género y salud sexual y reproductiva. También ha trabajado en Marketing y Ventas y ha sido Ejecutiva de Cuentas.