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Topic: Youth Migration

Links without Borders:

Moving Beyond Generalizations and Building Solutions
Summary____________________________________________________ 1 Introduction: My Personal Experience_____________________________ 1 Migration in the Costa Rican Context______________________________ 3 Young Migrants in Action: Links without Borders_____________________ 6 Building a Single Shared Story __________________________________ 9 Sources___________________________________________________ 10

March 2011

Links without Borders:

Moving Beyond the Generalizations and Building Solutions
Dedicated to everyone in Links without Borders Summary What does the term migration really mean? It is such a complex phenomenon, so rich in interpretations and experiences, how could it possibly be understood and explained? The first step is to move beyond the myth that there is only one story to tell: we each have a story to tell and a whole life to share. Migration, especially the migration of young people, is a major issue for Costa Rica, and it has crucial implications for the countrys development. But integrating young migrants and ensuring them full exercise of their rights poses a number of challenges. Contrary to popular opinion, solutions are possiblesolutions that we can propose to the young migrants themselves. In this essay, I start from my own personal experience of becoming aware of the reality of migration. Though I am Costa Rican born and I live in the country, for a long time I was isolated from these other stories. I move from the personal story to the collective story and then from reflection to action, and finally to my involvement in Links without Borders. Links without Borders is a network of young migrants, refugees, and Costa Ricans who share a fundamental goal: to successfully integrate each and every young person into a multicultural and changing society. That is the challenge I have accepted. I have put myself to the test. Together with dozens of wonderful young people I never thought I would know, we have built something out of the ordinary: concrete solutions and actions. I hope to capture and convey here a sense of the motivation and enthusiasm that have driven this project, in the hope that similar ones will be started up elsewhere.

1. Introduction: My Personal Experience When I was in high school, my knowledge about migration was no more than what the average Costa Rican would tell you: all you needed to know was that Nicaraguan immigrants were bad and stupid and all Colombians were drug traffickersa simple response to any doubts or questions about the phenomenon of human migration. The harshness of these judgments, however, already made me wonder if there wasnt an assessment that was a little less jarring, that didnt paint hundreds of thousands of human beings with the misguided brush of a seven oclock news broadcast. Because here, as in many parts of the world, the media discourse had a lot to do with creating this image of immigrants as criminals, as if they were nothing more than a burden that the country had to contend with.

I, too, was already beginning to feel like a displaced person in my own country. That was to be expected, perhaps, because I was fifteen or sixteen years old. At that age one doesnt fit in anywhere. Least of all me. I never played football, I wasnt even interested in watching the games. I didnt do the things most of my classmates did, and I didnt even like the things they did. I didnt agree with them about anything. I felt as if I was drifting farther and farther away from the place where I belonged, or at least where I thought I had belonged up to then. From the safe haven of high school, I had gone to the uncertainty of graduating and waiting long months before starting at the university. There, outside, in the more or less real world, on the other side of the protective walls of high school, I suddenly came upon a dizzying variety and profusion of truths (until then there had been only one truth). The worst that confusion begets is inaction. Unable to find the neat linear answers that had guided me in the past, what was I to do? Better not to do anything, I decided: stay put and let others do what needs to be done. At the university I learned only one thing that I accept today as absolute truthnamely, that there is no such thing as a single story, a generalization. In the case of migrants, poor people, women, children, persons of different sexual orientation, indigenous people, Afro-Costa Ricansthey all (we) have an immense stock of stories to tell, all about the same event, the same phenomenon. In a career like the one that I had chosennamely, communications and mediait was impossible to overlook these realities. As a future journalist and audiovisual producer, I could not make any assumptions, I could not fail to question anything that I found in the street. What took away my veil of self-complacent ignorance was getting to know people. The university is a space for art, sports, for getting acquainted, sharing, and innovating. Among the many people I met, I got to know a classmate in the communications program who used a word which up to that moment had meant nothing to me: refugee. He told me he was a refugee from Colombia. I began to read up on the subject and try to understand the situation in Costa Rica. I have spent three years learningnot just learning what I heard in the classrooms, much of which is already forgotten, but learning about the diversity and richness of the human experience. I learned new words that are suddenly charged with contradictory feelings and an impulse to take action. I learned words like refugee, meaning, on the one hand, a painful experience, having to leave the country where one was born because of violence or persecution, and on the other hand, the lucky opportunity to start all over again somewhere else. And I learned what it felt like to want to do something to facilitate his integration and combat the stereotypes that always emerge out of ignorance, evoking my own desire to help young people who, like me, wanted no more than to study, workand simply, live.

2. Migrations in the Costa Rican Context Costa Rica is a very diverse society, with an enormous variety of cultures and life experiences for such a small territory. Nevertheless, we tend to reject this multicultural reality in our daily discourse. We like to see ourselves as special, unique in Central America, and yet we deny what has made us grow as a country: the diversity within it.

Migrations have always played a major role in the countrys development. Throughout our history, communities such as the Afro-Costa Rican, the Chinese, the Italian, and others have had a presence in various economic processes that have helped to build Costa Rica as a country. According to data from the last Census, conducted in 2000 (estimates since then have kept the proportion), currently about 8% of the national population are migrants. More recently, the first National Youth Survey, with data from 2008, counted a total of 115,280 young migrants (Encuesta Nacional de Juventud, 2008). Of these, 68.7% were from Nicaragua; almost 10% from Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, and Guatemala; and another 5% from Cuba and the Dominican Republic. These figures reflect a series of shifting relationships and processes that have helped to enrich the image that we had of Costa Rica. Of this migrant youth population, approximately half have lived in the country since about 2000 according to the National Youth Survey (2008). However, only one-fourth of the young migrants in the country are studying, mainly because they have to work: more than half of these young people have jobs. This situation poses an important challenge for integrating the migrants into our society, since it is well known that education plays a fundamental role in the social dynamic of integration from both economically and culturally. As a young person myself, I know that the need to study places pressure on the household, and sometimes this pressure can only be relieved when the young person goes to work. But to give up education for that reason is something we cannot allow. The situation is very serious, with three-fourths of the migrant population not attending classes in middle school, high school. or university. Among young Nicaraguans alone it is even worse: almost 80% of them do not work, a difference on an order that affects social relations between Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans in ways that have yet to be fully studied. When I looked at these figures, it was a complete surprise. Although I was aware of the presence of migrants other than the Nicaraguans and Colombians (the largest populations, and the ones that are analyzed later below), in everyday life it is sometimes difficult to have an idea of the number of people this really represents. Two populations are most important for studying migration in Costa Rica: the Nicaraguans and the Colombians. The community with which I have had the most contact, because of its geographic proximity, is the Nicaraguan. Although there has been a steady flow of migrants from Nicaragua throughout our history, the numbers peaked in the 1980s and 1990s (Sandoval, 2007), triggering a series of social processes that have been studied extensively. To begin with, the dynamic of migration itself poses challenges and opportunities for the Nicaraguans who decide to come in search of a better life; at the same time, the subject has been the focus of media attention and the public opinion based on experiences with the presence of migrants in other countries, giving rise to discrimination and disdain. The phenomenon of discrimination toward the Nicaraguans has been studied at length, but in everyday life, in what one experiences in the street, many of the discourses about this population that were built up years ago continue to survive From my own perspective, at least, I would like to think that

the jokes, put-downs, and shameless discrimination that were the norm in the 1990s are significantly reduced. I remember that when I was in school, eight or ten years old, the worse insult was to be called a Nica. It meant everything that was bad or dirty; it meant that the person was a thief, undesirable. Based on this painful welcome, it is natural that integration of the Nicaraguan population into society has been fragmented and tentative. We tend to exaggerate the differences between us. We tend to be distrustful and think we are being inundated by too many migrants (Smith, 2010). Of course, discrimination for being of a particular nationality ends up amounting to exclusion based on the poverty in which a large number of the Nicaraguans in our country live, many of whom perform essential jobs in the Costa Rican economy. There is a myth that immigration has a negative impact on the economy due to the deepening of poverty and unemployment (Sandoval, 2007). However, in many sectors the arrival of Nicaraguan workers has brought revitalization because of the lower cost and abundance of labor. This has happened especially for coffee, banana, and sugarcane growers; the construction industry; and services such as domestic workers and private security guards (2000 Census). In any case, the migration flow has tapered off considerably and the lead has shifted to other nationalities arriving in Costa Rica. My own perception is that young people, including myself, have changed our attitude toward Nicaraguans: the jokes and insults are gone, and when a person makes a remark of this kind, they are usually put in their place. The key, I think, has been the fact that many Nicaraguan mothers bring their children, who study alongside the rest of us in the schools. This is an early indication that the experience of sharing and living together with people from other cultures with different ideas, overlooking any prejudices we may have, contributes over the long term to building more healthy societies. Without drawing conclusions too soon, I would like to suggest, however, that it is in the spaces where young people interact that we can start to build lasting solutions to the challenges posed by migration, and that therefore these are the first opportunities we should be promoting. The second largest group of migrants is from Colombia, because of the violence that has been occurring in the country for several decades. According to Jozef Merkx, head of UNHCR in Costa Rica, there are 12,400 refugees in the country. The large majority come from Colombia, and many are young people (from presentation at the Links without Borders Conference, 2011). It is worth noting that these refugees represent more than forty nationalities, including Venezuela, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Haiti, several African countries, and many, many more. Colombian migration has not received as much attention in academic studies as the Nicaraguan. However, the erroneous and simplistic idea that Colombians are dangerous has been given irresponsible play in the media discourse and perpetuated by public opinion. Faced with the regional reality of the drug traffic problem, fear has been dumped on a population that has had to flee from the violence and rebuild their lives in a new home. Colombians that enter as refugees have invaluable support from such

institutions as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Association of International Consultants and Advisers (ACAI), which provides them with legal services, psychological support, and assistance in becoming integrated into the community. 3. Young Migrants in Action: Links without Borders My exploration of all these issues and statistics about youth migration led me to wonder if it would be possible for me, a simple guy with a few ideas but no clear plan for turning them into action, could do something to improve their quality of life. Being in contact with migrants, especially my classmate who had entered the country as a refugee from Colombia, awoke an understanding in me that up to then I had only intuitednamely, that it was urgent and necessary to work on the integration of young migrants into our society. The social dynamic that had brought his parents to the country years earlier were very complex, and their entrance into the Costa Rican socioeconomic system was affected by factors very specific to their situation. In the case of the young people, on the other hand, the possibilities for re-proposing their integration into our society are much greater, and the work that can be done is more varied. A unique initiative, in which I have had the privilege of participating, is the project Links without Borders. This is an organization of young people that has the support of ten agencies concerned with the protection of young migrants: UNHCR, the Association of International Consultants and Advisers (ACAI), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Refugee Education Trust (RET), the Costa Rican Ministry of Culture and Youth (Council on Youth), the Vice Minister for Youth, the Desamparados Municipality Casa de Derechos (a community south of San Jos, the capital of Costa Rica), Defence for Children International (CDI), the Netherlands government (represented by its embassy), and the Directorate General of Migration and Alien Status. These agencies offer funding, and UNHCR and ACAI have provided orientation. However, the content and development of the proposals is entirely up to us, the young participants. Links without Borders was launched during the second half of 2010 at a pre-consultation meeting attended by a group of young migrants and refugees from throughout the country, who contributed ideas for the creation of this entity. In addition to opening up space for dialogue, its mission is to create plans for real action in seeking effective social integration. A conference was held in February 2011 and attended by 170 participants, including myself. I had had knowledge about the subject matter, but what had been lacking was the emotional connection to fully engage in action for change. I was able to find this motivation thanks to the incomparable experience of hearing the first-hand life stories of my fellow companions in Links without Borders. Throughout the three days of the conference, I found that I was able to discuss, listen, argue, and generate innovative ideas, and to abolish once and for all any remaining generalizations that were still floating around in my thoughts. All this is very recent, but I can already feel my vision expanding and overflowing conventional boundaries and expectations.

At the conference we focused on six fundamental pillars to support the full exercise of human rights for young migrants: combating discrimination and xenophobia; access to health services; education; respectable employment; paperwork reduction in the documentation process; and access to credit and subsidies. We shared our ideas with representatives from the various institutions involved in the project as well as experts on the particular subject matter, who indicated that they were very pleased to see young people taking concrete action to address the dilemmas the affect us all. But it was not just conversation: with support from UNHCR, ACAI, OIM, and the other institutions involved, the conference produced a declaration that was published in the national media. In the declaration we made it clear that achieving integration requires joint effort, but more than anything else it means waking people up to the fact that if all of us work togetheryoung people, migrants, refugees, and in this case, Costa Ricans in generalwe can achieve our goals. One of the key issues was lack of awareness on the part of Costa Rican public officials who provide services for migrants about what a migrant is, what a refugee is, and about the social situations that motivate a person to leave his or her country of origin. We young people can provide this understanding by engaging in activities that involve exchanging stories and points of view, and the Plan of Action we are developing is geared in this direction. The Plan of Action proposes a series of activities that to be carried out in the Links without Borders network in order to achieve: 1) Active commitment on the part of government institutions that work with the migrant population 2) Coordination between international or local agencies that work with the migrant population 3) Expanded spaces for cultural exchange and integration, including traditional schools (elementary schools, high schools, universities, and others) 4) More education for refugees and migrant persons about their rights and duties and their opportunities for employment and education 5) More education on the subject for Costa Ricans in general, and steps that can be taken in this regard During preparation of the Plan of Action, I was able to put into practice all that I had been working on in my mind since I discovered that migration is an important issue for those of us who are concerned about development and human rights. It is a unique opportunity to share our ideas and see them carried out with, by, and for young people. The knowledge that government institutions are taking us seriously, encouraging us, and lending their support (from physical space to links to pre-existing projects) is extraordinary motivation: it would be recommendable for other countries to explore how they can innovate and experiment based on similar approaches. Links without Borders has a limited budget, consisting of only $ 5 000 in donations to prepare the Plan of Action. Therefore, we have had to think about concrete actions that do not require much

money which we can carry out with various communities in the country. We have proposed holding movie forums, putting on plays, painting murals, convening workshops to raise awareness and provide training for government officials, arranging cultural exchanges during holidays, and developing audiovisual and printed educational materials on the subject of migration and refugees. My contribution to the organization has been in the area of communications and media. I feel very proud to be able to contribute the knowledge I have gained from courses at the university and take it to the street and apply it to people I know personally. Since it is a project in progress, my proposals are still being worked on. The first is the production of sound bites to be broadcast on the radio and Internet, which I have been developing based on my training at school. I will also be working to produce a publicity spot to spread the word about the network and its purposes throughout the country, to lend impetus to the work we are doing, and to help Costa Ricans to get acquainted and join forces with us. I have also proposed painting murals that depict the situation of young migrants in communities, especially those affected by their specific problems, and the formation conversation groups where neighbors can get together and think about these issues. The idea, with all these stories and all these perspectives, is to build a work of art that the community can feel it identifies with. Building this methodology to raise awareness by the people involved is going to need for us young people to sit down and between us construct the lines of thought and action. This methodology should be developed through Links without Borders, based on our experience sharing the points of view we have explored through dialogues. One long-term project that I have suggested, which will depend on finding the funds to get it started, is the creation of an entity that will promote entrepreneurship and innovation for development through microfinancing. Loans will be made to young entrepreneurs in communities that have large migrant populations and are faced with serious economic challenges. In Costa Rica there are areas like La Carpio in San Jos or Guarar in Heredia that have a large Nicaraguan population and many social inequalities. Each person can offer a unique, innovative view about how to take advantage of their skills and aptitudes. Thus, for example, it is intended to promote projects that include the participation of Costa Ricans, Nicaraguans, and Colombians in the same working group. This process would be accompanied by brainstorming and artistic expression (the main focus of Links without Borders), so that through economic development greater community integration can be achieved among people of different nationalities. In Links without Borders our main asset will be the will to work and do something together. This has been a challenge for me, as well as all the others, since we have to draw on what we have learned in high school, university, or our work and apply it to planning such activities as small art festivals, discussion groups, street theater, and distribution of information, as well as the creation of spaces for intercultural education. In doing this, we take advantage of what brings us together: social networks, sports, art, and the desire to be active.

4. Building a Shared Story To be young is to be in a process of becoming, trying to be. For a young migrant it is a journey twice over. But it is a journey we can make easier by working together and sharing our knowledge and feelings. For this reason, it is important that we get involved in organizations like Links without Borders or else existing institutions that help give impetus to our concrete actions. For me, it has been a matter of becoming, or at least staying on the path to become, an agent of change and development in the society that surrounds me. Working among and for young people is the key to achieving the dream of a multicultural society based on integration. The next positive next step would be to replicate Links without Borders in other Latin American countries and grow the network of young people in search of change, innovation, and opportunities to build a shared storya story that mixes together and gives added power to all the life experiences whichlike mine, that of my classmate in the communication program, or that of any of the many friends in Links without Bordersare full of unique visions that can contribute to the development and social integration of migrants and refugees.

Costa Rica, Instituto Nacional de Estadstica and Censos (2000). Censo de poblacin. San Jos: INEC. Sandoval Garca, C. (ed.) (2007). El mito roto: inmigracin y emigracin en Costa Rica. San Jos: Editorial UCR. Smith-Castro, V. (2009). Experiencias de discriminacin social de inmigrantes nicaragenses en Costa Rica: reacciones afectivas y atribuciones causales. Revista Interamericana de Psicologa/ Inter-American Journal of Psychology 44 (2), 368-381. Merkx, J. (2011). Transcript of talk given at Links without Borders Conference (12 February 2011).