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Fleeing in reverse: Return and keep quiet to live in Nicaragua

Esta publicación también está disponible en: Español
Translator: Arianna Hernández

I. Escaping

One Saturday night in 2020, with the severest restrictions in place at the beginning of the pandemic, Beatriz started to have an anxiety attack, experiencing shortness of breath and restlessness. She went out on the balcony on the fourth floor of the building where she lived in the province of San Jose to try to catch her breath and calm herself down, but the suffocating feeling was too overwhelming.

“I put on a mask and went for a walk with Nico,” her dog, she recalled. That was what she did every time she needed to deal with those episodes. “I walked for an hour and a half to clear my mind.” From time to time, Beatriz also dealt with her anxiety by taking pills. She took ones that would give her the small chance of escaping reality for a few hours by falling asleep.

Two years earlier, like hundreds of Nicaraguans, she came to Costa Rica through Peñas Blancas, fleeing the violence when the socio-political crisis broke out in her country. Her dad, then an activist in opposition to the Nicaraguan government, was imprisoned at the beginning of the conflict and her family saw Costa Rica as the best option for her to flee from danger.

Since she arrived in Costa Rica, one thing was clear to her: “They forced me to choose this life.” Living in San Jose didn’t make her completely happy, but she achieved a certain level of stability. She found work, she lived with people she knew for a while and her mom visited her a couple of times.

She was fine, until the pandemic began and her emotional and psychological instability began to eat away at her. She already carried the weight of unresolved concerns about the crisis in her country on her shoulders: her activist dad in constant risk and her mom being intimidated occasionally by the police and sympathizers.

In the midst of the pandemic, she was also worried when her mother got sick with COVID-19 and, in general, that her entire family lived under the leadership of a government with few health measures to face the severity of the virus.

That’s when I started to think, what happens if something happens to my mom? Who’s going to be there to take care of her?” she asked herself repeatedly.

To take care of their families, because of unemployment, because of lack of access to healthcare, because of social instability or schools being closed, hundreds of Nicaraguans started fleeing in reverse to Nicaragua. Beatriz, a young woman 25 years old, was forced to go back by an invisible illness: an emotional crisis and psychological damage that is rarely talked about when it shows up due to displacement or migration.

She and her dog, Nico, arrived in a Nicaragua that wasn’t very different from the one they had fled, a Nicaragua where Beatriz was forced to make the decision to keep quiet in order to stay alive. That’s what she told The Voice of Guanacaste in January 2021, from her home in Managua, with her mother close by her asking fearfully, “Where is this going to come out?” and “What if this recording gets taken away?”

Illustration: Dunkan Harley

II. Returning

Under restrictions due to the health emergency, immigrants in the country were among the most affected populations, not just economically, but also in their mental health.

It’s impossible to know the real number of Nicaraguans who decided to go back, but to gauge it, in April 2020 alone one month after COVID-19 began to circulate in Costa Rica more Nicaraguans renounced their status as refugees or as refugee applicants than during the entire year of 2019.

The figure for 2020 practically quintupled compared to the previous year. While 807 Nicaraguans renounced their refugee status or stopped the process to obtain it during 2019, a total of 3,945 did so in 2020, according to data from the General Office of Immigration and Alien Services (DGME-Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería).

This does not mean that all of them abandoned the process because they left the country, since Immigration doesn’t collect the reasons for withdrawals (abandonment of the refugee application process) or renouncement of refugee status. For example, some might have abandoned the process because the processing times were taking longer at the DGME.

Others left through unregulated border points, leaving a gap in official immigration information.

Authorities, the media and some Costa Rican citizens reproached them for a large part of the increase in infections. “Right now, we’d like to have a solid physical containment barrier, like a wall [at the border with Nicaragua],” Security Minister Michael Soto said during one of the daily conferences.

The outcry from well-known figures, the media and memes triggered the rejection replicated by citizens, as documented by a study by the United Nations. The organization identified more than half a million posts on social networks with hate speech and discrimination associated with xenophobia (33.1%) and gender (21.6%), with more judgements against people from Nicaragua.

It was a critical new point in Costa Rican xenophobia because the rejection of the Nicaraguan population has been cultivated historically. Beatriz, for example, will never forget when the owner of an apartment told her that she “wouldn’t rent to Nicaraguans because they’re dirty and noisy.” 

“I felt worse,” she recalled.

In addition to the remarks, living conditions were increasingly precarious.

Before the pandemic, nearly eight out of 10 Nicaraguan households with refugee status or seeking asylum in Costa Rica were able to eat at least three meals a day, but during the health crisis, only two out of 10 were doing so, according to a survey of 230 households between July and August 2020 by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

The evaluation’s statistics regarding job and housing stability were also worrisome. While 93% of households reported paid work before the pandemic, only 59% held jobs during the health emergency. In addition to unemployment, for many, the risk of being exploited and falling into slavery increased due to the lines of work that a large majority had for making a living: cleaning, agriculture and construction.

This context led to 7% of the households having a relative who had returned to Nicaragua and 21% who were thinking of doing so.

Beatriz was unemployed for a time and started having panic attacks, peaks of anxiety and depression more often than usual. She was in a land that she never felt was her own and where she and her countrymen were seen as collectively responsible for the increase in COVID-19 cases.

I remember that I would wake up and sometimes I didn’t want to get out of bed. It wasn’t a dream or anything. It was sadness,” said Beatriz. “I remember that I said to God, ‘I’m sad.’ I’m a positive person. I can say that I’m happy every day, but there (in Costa Rica), it was the opposite. I started having sad days with just a few happy moments. “

This type of crisis is “the order of the day” and worsened with the pandemic, explained  Adela Herran, a psychologist with the Center for Social Rights of Immigrants (CENDEROS- Centro de Derechos Sociales de Inmigrantes) and an associate of UNHCR .

According to Herran, some people don’t show symptoms of deteriorating mental health when they first arrive in the country because they’re focused on solving the basics: where to live, what to eat, where to work. “But once they’re settled, that’s right when people start to have panic attacks, insomnia, depression, conditions that are very difficult to cope with,” she explained. “And they say why now if they already have a little house or a job, but it’s precisely because of all the stress and what it meant to leave, because of the effort to adapt and survive.”

Another of the organizations focused on supporting immigrants in Costa Rica, the Jesuit Service for Migrants (SJM- Servicio Jesuita para Migrantes), perceived the mental health deterioration in the Nicaraguan immigrant population as a result of the pandemic, mainly the ones with stories like Beatriz, of fleeing after 2018.

“They came from a situation of leaving suddenly, with hard scenarios. They had lost a loved one, were imprisoned, were victims of torture or were in self-confinement due to the same attacks by the regime,” explained the organization’s director in Costa Rica, Karina Fonseca.

The SJM was trying to focus a good part of its efforts on including people in the country’s social and economic dynamics: employment, education, community integration. But the need to take care of mental health halted their intentions and they even had to refer some people to psychiatrists.

With the pandemic, people lose precarious livelihoods, ties, and fear sets in. A person who feels that they don’t have rights in the country feels afraid of saying, ‘well, if I get sick and they don’t treat me, or if I expose myself to a situation where they’re going to deport me,’” added Fonseca.

Faced with multiple crisis scenarios, Beatriz and her countrymen were forced to return to their country, to a place that would provide them with human warmth, three meals a day or at least a roof over their heads.

“When I saw myself locked up, with all my plans for 2020, like making friends, well, it didn’t work. I felt bad and when I decided to return, it was because it was already bad, psychologically very bad. I cried every day,” said Beatriz, who returned with her few belongings and her dog, Nico, in a bag.

They asked her if she was withdrawing her refugee application process, and she said yes. Nothing could give her a home in Costa Rica.

On the other side of the border, at last, she was reunited with her family.

Illustration: Dunkan Harley

III. Keeping Quiet

Returning to Nicaragua wasn’t easy. The Nicaraguan government requests a COVID-19 test, even from its citizens, the second most impoverished population in all of Latin America, just ahead of Haiti. In July of 2020, dozens were stuck in Peñas Blancas and were finally aided with tests and humanitarian support from Costa Rican organizations and institutions.

Those who left through unregulated points on the border likewise faced risks, with crime along the border or the chance of being intercepted by authorities from one of the countries. Through WhatsApp groups, those who manage to cross kept others updated on how clear the route was for those who were on the way, according to Sole, another Nicaraguan, with a degree in psychology, who had requested refugee status. Sole escaped from hunger in December of 2020 by crossing to Nicaraguan soil through Peñas Blancas at an unregulated point.

“I came to Costa Rica because my mother, who worked for the Ministry of Health, was fired from her job and was being threatened. They fired me… It was out of necessity and out of fear for my life,” she told The Voice days before starting her flight back to Nicaragua, out of hunger. “But here, I could never find a permanent job. Sometimes they didn’t pay me or they paid me very little and I can’t support myself here now. I don’t even have enough to eat.”

Crossing the border wasn’t the riskiest point. Some people, mainly people who spoke out in opposition to the Nicaraguan government, were detained by Nicaraguan authorities upon their return to the country. This has been documented by the Nicaragua Never + Human Rights Collective, made up of Nicaraguans opposed to the Sandinista government who also fled in 2018.

There is a real risk that can put people’s lives at risk,” Braulio Abarca, from the collective, a former employee of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH- Centro Nicaragüense de los Derechos Humanos), told The Voice. “And not just the issue of being detained at the border, but the constant and repeated harassment at the homes of the people who return.”

Situations like these were experienced by journalists Yelsin Espinosa, Ricardo Montenegro and Carlos Fernando Chamorro— in exile again due to the risk of being imprisoned.

According to the monitoring done by the organization, some of the people who returned were detained “express” style, in other words, for a few days, and others are imprisoned for a longer period or indefinitely while the Prosecutor’s Office investigates them for crimes of “treason” or money laundering.

“There is a systematic behavior against opposers and also those who raise their voices, even those who have already been victims of political persecution just for posting something on social networks,” indicated Abarca.

That’s why Beatriz made a decision when she returned: to keep quiet to stay alive.

No posting on social networks, no participating in any demonstration, staying out of it. “I don’t want to go back to living a life that I didn’t choose. In Costa Rica, I lived a life that they forced me to choose. I had no other option,” she said, determined, sitting on the couch in her house in Nicaragua.

“If I say a peep or something again, I’ll go back to that life I didn’t choose. So it’s better that I choose to keep quiet,” she reiterated. And she told The Voice that when she returned, some people she knows told her, “you’re a fool. Why did you come back?” 

“And I don’t say anything, because they have their opinions and I respect them, but no one will understand the sadness that I went through in Costa Rica,” she said.

Returning has meant recovering a series of fractions that one lost when forcibly displaced. The CENDEROS psychologist, Adela Herran, explained it like this: “Uprooting implies facing the loss of reference point, the loss of loved ones, your daily life, your work, your culture, roots, a life project. It’s the loss of a whole context that gives you meaning and that even gives you identity.”

“It’s regaining a sense that you’re really in a place that’s yours, with people you know, with a community that you belong to, with a family that can help even if it’s minimally. People here [in Costa Rica] feel very lonely, ”she added.

What made Beatriz the most restless was that her father persisted in being public about his discontent with the government. “More than worrying me, it makes me angry. What he does isn’t going to make Daniel Ortega stop being president,” she said, sitting on the couch in her house, where she lives with her mother and her sister.

“I’m worried that if he continues with these movements, they’ll throw him in prison again and I, again, will be collateral damage,” she explained. But she also understands the desperate actions of her father and thousands of others to change the course of the country. It’s a fight of counterbalances in which little is said about taking care of mental health.

Beatriz’s dog, Nico, died a week after she arrived in Nicaragua. “When he died, I told him, ‘you were just waiting for me to have someone with me,’” she said, “because if he had died there [in Costa Rica], I would have thrown myself off the balcony for sure,” she said, half joking, half serious.

IV. And Now?

The last time The Voice of Guanacaste spoke with Beatriz, in August of 2021, she said that her father had given up speaking publicly against the Sandinista government. “I feel an immense calmness,” she said.

“Is it by chance stopping fighting?”

“It’s not that he stops fighting,” she said and paused. “It’s not that he stopped fighting; he stopped going out into the streets because there won’t be people if they kill him.”

On that night in August, in her country, former Miss Nicaragua Berenice Quezada’s candidacy for vice president was being discussed.

“If, on November 7, I see her and Ortega on the table, I’d give her my vote, because the issue here is to get him out,” she said, certain that any option would be better than continuing with the Ortega Murillo government. “But we have to see who’s there at the end of October, because right now, they can throw Berenice in jail.”

That same night, Quezada was intercepted by judicial authorities and notified of her disqualification from holding public office since she was being investigated for the crime of “provocation, proposition and conspiracy to commit terrorist acts” due to some remarks that offended government sympathizers, as reported by the Nicaraguan news outlet Confidencial.

The party that she represented, Citizen Alliance for Freedom (ACxL- Citizen Alliance for Freedom), was added to the list of parties that don’t have a path to the November elections since the Supreme Electoral Council canceled its legal status.

More than 30 activist and political figures have been imprisoned in quick succession since May. For the electoral contest, the main opposition forces remain behind bars, and there are seven nominees and running mates registered to seek the presidency. The outlook points to Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo continuing in office.

In this context, journalist Octavio Enriquez, exiled in August this year, wrote in a column in Confidencial:

From the executive branch, they want a peace and quiet similar to that of cemeteries. We, the citizens, must keep saying it— each one shouting at home and with his friends— so that the truth prevails. Instead of turning the page, as has been done historically, leaving open wounds in our society that we keep crying about, we need those responsible to be held accountable. A light of true justice for all contributes to a free society.”

And although Beatriz agrees with the need for a free Nicaragua, she gives priority to her mental health as an option to survive. “I am in this country, but I don’t know everything about the movements because I know how much it affects my emotional and psychological state. Everything scares me,” she confessed.


Journalist’s note: Names and biographical data were changed to protect the identities of some people.


Are you an immigrant, refugee or applicant for refugee status in Costa Rica? Here are contacts that can help you:

UNHCR – 800-REFUGIO (800-7338446)

SJM – 8729-0521

CENDEROS – 8885-0196

Therapy group for men, RET and ACNUR – 7011-8697

Women’s Circle, RET and ACNUR – 6026-1686

This investigative report was put together within the framework of a scholarship awarded by the Gabo Foundation and ACNUR.