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The Case of Costa Rica: What Happens to Refugees After the Crisis?

Photo Credit: UNHCR Innovation

By Helen Greene
Development & Communications Associate

Nearly 60 million people are currently displaced by conflict and persecution – the largest number since World War II. While several recent crises have increased the number of refugees considerably, the average length of time a person stays a refugee is around 20 years.

Emergency response is critical to providing for refugees' short-term needs, but is often not enough to provide a better future for displaced families. That's why Trickle Up began working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to deliver practical livelihoods programs for refugees. Working in over 125 countries, UNHCR’s mandate is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees, displaced persons, and the stateless, and to seek lasting solutions to their plight. Looking for an evidenced-based solution to the extreme poverty and vulnerability that many displaced peoples face, UNHCR sought out Trickle Up’s expertise in an evidence-based economic development approach called Graduation. Trickle Up's approach involves a sequenced and time-bound program that combines careful participant selection with livelihood planning and market research, skills training and coaching, and savings support to empower participants to move out of poverty.

In five pilot projects from Egypt to Ecuador, Trickle Up helped UNHCR to adapt their programming using the Graduation Approach. Often all of Graduation’s central components already exist in a typical UNHCR program, but they don’t often work together effectively. Trickle Up's approach to Graduation provides a deliberate combination and sequence of these components to achieve maximum impact. And, because Graduation involves individual coaching, staff at UNHCR can regularly monitor household progress, provide encouragement, and troubleshoot issues, allowing for quick adaptability as a household's circumstances evolve.

Since 2013, Trickle Up has launched pilot projects with UNHCR in five countries: Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Egypt, and Zambia.

While the flight of refugees from Syria has dominated headlines, displaced and refugee populations exist today in more than a hundred countries due to many different circumstances. One surprising example may be Costa Rica, where most refugees come from Colombia, but where violence in El Salvador and Honduras is causing refugees to arrive in increasing numbers. Because they're often escaping severe violence in their countries of origin, they often need greater psycho-social assistance to address mental health needs. A lack of local support networks means they require more material and economic assistance than other groups, too.

As in other contexts, refugees in Costa Rica face barriers that prevent them from fully exercising their rights: discrimination, xenophobia, and a lack of information (either on their side or from the host community). Unlike many places hosting displaced populations, however, refugees and asylum seekers in Costa Rica have the right to work, start their own businesses, open bank accounts, and access public services (health care, education, etc.). Understanding this context is critical to counteracting barriers, easing local integration, and increasing self-reliance. UNHCR identifies individuals and families living in the most vulnerable conditions and addresses their immediate needs. Then, to empower households to build new economic and social lives and better integrate into their host countries, they're included in the Graduation program.

To encourage this integration and address extreme poverty faced by Costa Rican households, several women from local communities are included in the project. Most are survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, single mothers in highly vulnerable conditions, or HIV positive. Not only does this provide vulnerable women from Costa Rica with a pathway out of poverty, it also enhances the self-reliance and community integration of refugee women and children by connecting them to a similarly vulnerable local community of women.

From 2014-2015, we have helped UNHCR reach 450 participants in Costa Rica. 350 of them are refugees and 100 are local women living in extreme poverty. 70% of the project's participants are women.

Through the Costa Rica pilot and others around the world, Trickle Up and UNHCR are learning how to adapt Graduation to different refugee contexts around the world, from rural to urban areas and from long-term cases to new arrivals. These learnings will inform our joint effort to increase the reach of the Graduation approach in UNHCR’s operations around the world with the goal of to expanding our partnership to 22 countries over the next few years.