“What we’re doing here is unprecedented in the current system. We are taking on the case like we are a law firm, with all those responsibilities. We follow our clients through the legal process, and accompany them to hearings. We’re there for them in an ongoing way. So that’s a huge difference,” said Kathya Araya, who leads HIAS’ legal services program in San Jose, Costa Rica.
“Costa Rica has not had this type of quality legal services available for refugees, ever,” Araya said.
And she ought to know. Before becoming HIAS’ country representative for Costa Rica, Araya served as Chief of Staff for the Minister of Foreign Affairs, where, among other duties, she represented the Minister on the Refugees’ Commission. She also has nearly two decades of previous experience at a law firm. All of which is helping her succeed in her new role, leading HIAS’ newest global office.
In their first two months, Araya and her staff have already seen more than 800 clients and provided 16 training sessions to educate refugees and asylum seekers about their rights.
Aside from her own formidable professional experience, Araya notes with pride that, “we’ve managed to hire a multidisciplinary staff, with expertise in [international relations, political science, psychology who have worked in diverse and with multicultural populations] and that mixture of proficiency has really enriched the services we are able to offer.”
By providing refugees with comprehensive legal information and assistance, HIAS’ Costa Rica program hopes to dramatically increase protection for refugees living in the country. And in a few short weeks, they are already making progress.
“On the legal services side, we have managed to hire people with a lot of experience in refugee law and they know a lot about how the process works. So that expertise is invaluable.”
With rising numbers of refugees arriving from Northern Triangle nations, such services are more important than ever. Costa Rica received more than 4,000 asylum claims in 2016 and expects a minimum of 7,500 by the end of 2017.
Although they do see women and children who have come from as far away as the Democratic Republic of Congo, typically their clients hail from other Latin American countries, like Venezuela and El Salvador.
El Salvador is one of the most dangerous places on Earth. “Children as young as nine are recruited for gang membership,” the LA Times recently noted.
“The cases we typically see are young boys who escaped being recruited by the Maras,” said Araya, citing one of the major El Salvadorian gangs, “as well as families who are fleeing because their daughters have been identified by the gang leaders as possible girlfriends. They have to leave before the girls are kidnapped.”
They have partnered with University of Costa Rica Law School and University of Costa Rica Language School to begin a fellowship program, recruiting students to provide legal and interpretation assistance.
They are also preparing to begin a new project, in partnership with UNHCR, aimed at preventing statelessness. Many children who are born in Costa Rica to non-Costa Rican parents lack a birth certificate or paperwork of any kind, especially if they were not born in a hospital.
“If they don’t have a birth certificate from Costa Rica or from Panama, their children may not be recognized by any county,” said Araya. This lack of documentation can create major difficulties later in life as they seek to establish their citizenship, obtain a national ID card, and more.
To prevent these challenges, HIAS Costa Rica will work to identify those who may not have documentation, to establish who they are and where they are from, and to assist them in obtaining the necessary documents and recognition so that they will not be at risk of statelessness in the future.
It’s one of many ways HIAS is making an impact in Costa Rica. They also continue to offer more routine legal services, including individual representation and interviews. A major thrust of their work to date has been assisting with appeals for asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected by the Costa Rican government.
“Our staff attorneys have been very busy with that, because we found that many of those decisions have very important deficiencies, both formally and substantially.”
Challenging due process violations is a strategic move to help improve the overall functioning of the refugee and asylum protection system in Costa Rica, which is strong but has been overwhelmed by the recent surge in arrivals. Asylum claims in Costa Rica jumped by more than 175% between 2013 and 2015, according to UNHCR.
“Even if we didn’t represent them initially, we are taking on their cases and helping them to appeal in order to try to reverse what is happening with all these cases, which are being rejected with basically no grounds,” Araya said.