“Lo Que Nos Une”: Refugee Youth and Integration in Costa Rica

by Caitlin E. Fouratt

Through digital storytelling, refugee youth in Costa Rica challenge xenophobia and assert that, for migrant and refugee youth, “what unites us” are common experiences of isolation and discrimination.


Over the last 30 years, Costa Rica has been the primary destination for economic migrants within Central America. However, in the past five years, the country has seen a dramatic increase in asylum seekers. Asylum applications grew from just under 1,000 per year in 2012 to 500 per month in 2017. On paper, Costa Rican law welcomes refugees. Asylum seekers are not detained, have a right to a work permit, and can attend public school while their cases are decided. In practice, however, long delays create a social and economic limbo, while xenophobia isolates and ostracizes asylum seekers.

Here, I share the digital narratives of asylum-seeking youth in Costa Rica, where I have conducted research since 2016 alongside a refugee youth association. These narratives reveal how young people encounter delays, isolation, and financial pressures from their families. So too, they problematize divisions of “deserving” refugees and “undeserving” economic migrants. In doing so, they highlight what unites both migrant and refugee youth in the face of difficult transitions to life in Costa Rica.

Digital Storytelling Methodology & Ethnography

As a method, digital storytelling builds on traditions of participatory research, adapting testimonio and oral history practices to new digital media. The process includes sharing stories, developing scripts, storyboarding, production and editing. In collaboration with two undergraduate students from CSU-Long Beach, a colleague from CSU-Northridge, I worked with five young people to develop digital narratives about their experiences. We concluded the week with a screening and discussion of the videos with the rest of the youth association.



According to participants, the decision to migrate was largely out of their control. Peter, who left El Salvador when he was 16 years old, explained: “Well, the decision was made. I didn’t want to come here but it was one night when we sat down to talk, and both of them my mom and dad got serious and said that even though I didn’t want to, I had to come here. And the decision was made.”

Three days later, he and his mother snuck out of the house at one in morning to catch a bus to Costa Rica. He emphasized how conflicted he felt about leaving – not wanting to leave behind family and friends while also recognizing the danger he was in because of the gangs.

Like Peter, many asylum-seeking youths see migration to Costa Rica as one of a series of disruptions to their daily lives that begin long before migration. Almost all of the Salvadorans I interviewed had been explicitly threatened by maras. Prior to migration, they risked their safety by crossing into rival gang territories to work, go to school, or visit relatives. One young man finished his last two years of high school from home because it became unsafe for him to attend his school in a rival gang territory. In this context, crossing international borders to migrate to Costa Rica seemed uneventful. When asked about the journey, Peter responded, “Eh, it was normal.” Still, the contrast between the confinement by internal borders within El Salvador and life in Costa Rica is striking. Alex’s video Historias Invisibles evokes both this contrast and the grief youth feel when leaving behind loved ones.

Family Tensions

Families choose Costa Rica as a destination for a number of reasons. For Salvadorans, the journey to Costa Rica is much cheaper and faster (36 hours) than attempting to make it to the US. Because Costa Rica received tens of thousands of Salvadoran refugees in the 1980s, many already have relatives established there. However, delays in the asylum process contribute to new tensions within family networks, as delayed applications mean delayed work permits. Asylum seekers become almost completely dependent on relatives who are often struggling financially themselves.  

21-year-old Juan Carlos talked about conflicts with his aunt, who had urged his parents to come to Costa Rica. In close living quarters with 8 family members, and only his aunt and uncle with regular employment, frustrations mounted. Juan Carlos felt enormous pressure to work rather than pursue a university degree, even though that had been a major goal of migrating. Staying late at the workshop to avoid spending time with his cousins, he explained, “Lately there’ve been a lot of problems. I mean, sometimes I fight with my cousins about nothing, or sometimes my aunt causes problems because of money.”

These dynamics and family conflict may be exacerbated because Salvadoran asylum seekers often arrive as a family, meaning more economic pressure given the number of relatives to house and feed. Whereas, according to NGO and government officials, Colombians and Venezuelans often arrive in a chain, with one or two members arriving, establishing themselves, and then sending for other family members.  


For young people, family responsibilities isolate them from their Costa Rican peers. For example, one of the NGO staff attributed the absence of young women in the workshop to gendered expectations for them to help at home and care for younger siblings. With little financial support, many asylum seekers begin their lives in Costa Rica in marginal urban neighborhoods already populated by immigrants. Peter, for example, notes in his video that his barrio is called Managuita, or little Managua, for its large immigrant population. Such places often lack access to quality services and institutions and are seen as insecure and unsafe.

Delays in schooling also isolate asylum-seeking youth from their Costa Rican peers. Asylum applicants have temporary legal status, but until they complete the process, they are unable to access public services or otherwise integrate. For example, at 14 years old, Diego’s parents tried to enroll him in high school but were told he missed the matriculation date and had to submit official transcripts. Refugees are legally exempt from such requirements, but local school officials often refuse to waive them for asylum seekers. Even when enrolled, Salvadoran students face other challenges, including adapting to a new educational system given difficulties with the language, vocabulary, and accents in Costa Rica.


Despite such barriers, young people continue to foster connections in Costa Rica. The youth association and their sponsoring NGO developed and led a public campaign called “Lo Que Nos Une” (“What Unites Us”) to bring awareness to xenophobia and the connections between refugees and Costa Ricans. However, the main impact of the campaign for the young people themselves was to reinforce connections among youth within the organization. Indeed, many of the young people involved turned to the association because of their exclusion from the Costa Rican educational system and job market. None of the young people interviewed professed to have close friendships with Costa Ricans, other than two Costa Ricans who form part of the youth association.

Most avoided referring to themselves as refugees or asylum seekers. Instead, they referred to themselves as migrants. The explicit use of the term migrant, instead of refugee, serves to highlight these young people’s connections to Nicaraguan economic migrants, who also face discrimination, difficulties in finding employment, and exclusion from the education system.  Peter argued that is logical for migrant and refugee youth to form deeper bonds because they have had similar experiences that most Costa Ricans cannot relate to, including homesickness and feeling like outsiders.

These digital stories illustrate the exclusion and xenophobia that young asylum seekers must navigate. Several group members commented that, despite having lived in Costa Rica for five years or more, they felt out of place and permanently homesick. In the context of their social isolation, exclusion from formal education, and the job market, these young people felt they were still suspended in a moment of transition, connected to each other and to their new home by experiences of exclusion and uncertainty.


About the author

Caitlin E. Fouratt is assistant professor of International Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Her work has examined transnational families and shifting immigration policies within Central America. Her current research focuses on the experiences of asylum seekers in Costa Rica and state responses to increasing asylum applications. Her work has appeared in PoLAR, the Journal of Latin American Studies, and others.