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Costa Rica Strains To Handle Central Americans Fleeing Violence


People fleeing violence in Central America have a new safe haven that could spare them that dangerous journey to the United States. One of the most peaceful and politically stable nations in the region, Costa Rica, is becoming an alternative for asylum seekers. Their numbers have been skyrocketing in the last year, and that could continue. And now, a program beginning next month will allow refugees from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala who've applied to come to the United States to wait out their applications in Costa Rica. Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Vladimir Magana says he avoided the gangs that ruled his neighborhood outside El Salvador's capital for years. He worked as a manager of a hardware store and studied to be a bond trader. Then, earlier this year, a local gang leader was released from prison. He had served time in connection with the murder of Magana's cousin. Once back in the neighborhood, he turned his sights on Magana. In the end, Magana says, it was a bad haircut that sealed his fate. The barber cut it too short - military style.

VLADIMIR MAGANA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "In my country, if the gangs think you're in the military or a policeman, you're the enemy," he says. He jumped on his bike and tried to get home unnoticed, but the gang leader, with three others in a car, saw him and closed in.

MAGANA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: The four jumped out of the car, fuming. He remembers the punches, kicks to the head and stomach. Get out of here, they said, and don't come back. He stayed with a relative outside the neighborhood, but the gang leader found him. Magana fled. An aunt in the U.S. told him not to come north. The trip was too dangerous. She sent money and urged him to go to Costa Rica. He's been in the capital, San Jose, for two months now. He found a room to rent and applied for asylum, and so have hundreds of other Salvadorans. In the first five months of this year, more than 800 officially sought asylum. That's more than the number who file claims in all of last year.


KAHN: Vice Minister of the Interior Department Carmen Munoz Casada says Costa Rica has always seen a trickle of Central Americans coming south, but not like this.

MUNOZ CASADA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "And," she says, "we weren't prepared." On top of the asylum seekers, thousands of migrants, many from the Caribbean and as far away as Africa, are also in the country. From launching points in South America, they've been traveling north, trying to reach the U.S. But ever since late last year, when Nicaragua tightened its border controls, the migrants have been backing up in makeshift camps and shelters in Costa Rica. The United Nations high commissioner for refugees representative, Carlos Maldonado, says this is too much for Costa Rica to handle alone.

CARLOS MALDONADO: There is no country that can give a solution to this situation. It has to be a regional solution.

KAHN: Costa Rica's President Luis Guillermo Solis is in Washington, D.C., today to meet with Vice President Biden. Next month, the U.S. will launch a new program that lets Central Americans apply for asylum from their home countries. They'll be transported to Costa Rica and housed for up to six months while the U.S. assesses their claims. Unfortunately, Salvadorans already in Costa Rica, like Vladimir Magana, won't qualify. He's hoping his Costa Rica asylum application is approved soon, and he'll get a work permit.

MAGANA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: And start making money, he says, to pay back his family. Without their support, he says, he would most likely be dead by now. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, San Jose, Costa Rica. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on