Costa Rica has a complex migration profile due to a long history of immigration, emigration and transit migration flows. In the year 2000, Costa Rica was one of the countries in the hemi- sphere with the highest percentage of immigrants (7.8% of its total population, according to the 2000 census). This immigrant population was essentially made up of people from Nicaragua (76%), followed by Colombians (4%), Panamanians (3.3%), Salvadorans (3%), and Americans (Mo- rales, 2008). Flows of immigrants rose considerably in the recent past due to economic and socio- political factors. First, significant forced migration was the direct consequence of military conflicts in the 1980s (Central America) and 1990s (Colombia), as well as the increased severity of poverty and inequality in the Central American region (ECLAC, 2000; Rivillas, 2008). Though still basically a destination country, flows from Costa Rica have increased since the end of the 1990s, especially to the United States.


Costa Rica acquired its name when the Spanish, expecting to find an abundance of gold, named it “Rich Coast.” In 1502, Christopher Columbus arrived in Costa Rica during his fourth and last voy- age to the New World. For three centuries, the Spanish ruled. However, as the indigenous popula- tion was rather small, the Spanish were unable to establish an extensive forced labor system. The African slave population was also relatively small when compared to that of other countries. Con- sequently, Costa Rica developed differently from other Latin American nations, producing a rather independent, individualist agrarian society (Foley and Cooke, 2008).

Costa Rica obtained its independence from Spain on September 15, 1821, without bloodshed, after other Central American colonies had fought to gain theirs. While Costa Rica joined the other Cen- tral American provinces in an 1821 joint declaration of independence from Spain, the confederation soon broke up as a result of border disputes among the countries (Foley and Cooke, 2008).

Two relevant events took place in the Caribbean region of Costa Rica that contributed to early im- migration flows to Costa Rica: the construction of the railway (1871-1874) and later large-scale banana production at the hands of the transnational UFC (1899). The later event spurred the inflow of Chinese and, especially, of Jamaican immigrants (Bariatti, 1987).

Though the Constitution of 1871 did not impose any obstacles to foreign immigration, laws that restricted immigration were created over the following decades with the goal of giving the State a legal instrument to select immigrants (OAS, 1995). These laws sought specifically to obstruct the entry of particular ethnic groups. For example, in 1897 the entry of new Chinese immigrants was prohibited, and, in 1904, that of Arabs, Armenians, Turks, and Gypsies. In 1910 the latter groups were once again allowed to come in as long as they paid certain fees (Bariatti, 1987).

In the 20th century, there was a clear tendency for the migrant populations of other Central Ameri- can countries to predominate (Nicaragua and Panama in first and second position, respectively) while the numerical importance of European immigration decreased steadily. In 1927, there were more than 6,000 Europeans; in 1973 their number had fallen to under 4,000; and by 1984 they rep- resented less than 0.2% percent of the total population (Calderón and Bonilla, 2007).

On the other hand, by 1927 the Nicaraguan population represented approximately 2% of the Costa Rican population, and by 1984, due to a massive outflow of people fleeing the war, the number of Nicaraguan immigrants again rose considerably, increasing to almost 46,000 or approximately 2% percent of the total population (Calderón and Bonilla, 2007).

In addition, by 1927, the Jamaican population represented more than 3% percent of the Costa Rican population. However, it decreased continuously throughout the century, falling to 1% by 1950 and to 0.01% by 1984 (OAS, 1995).

While the last three censuses (1963, 1973, and 1984) have shown a reduction in the nationalities that make up the immigrant population, the Nicaraguan population has definitely asserted itself as the foreign-born majority, representing approximately half of the total number of immigrants (OAS, 1995). In 1984, Nicaraguan immigrants made up 52% of the total foreign population in Costa Rica, a figure that increased to 73% in 1997 (ECLAC, 2000). By the year 2005, Costa Rica was home to 335,000 Nicaraguans (close to 46% of total immigrants in that country), a figure higher than that of Nicaraguans in the United States for the same year (ECLAC, 2000).

During the last decades of the 20th century, the immigrant population in Costa Rica from the United States, Canada, and Europe showed constant but slow growth. These migrants are the so-called amenity migrants who are in the search for nice weather, nature, culture and affordable luxury for their retirement. Costa Rica also has friendly policies for acquiring visas, buying real estate and paying taxes. According to the 2000 national population census, more than 17,000 immigrants from these countries lived in Costa Rica. While in absolute terms Americans and Canadians (10,568) outweighed Europeans (6,711), relatively speaking, it was Europeans who showed greater rates of growth between the census rounds of 1990 and 2000 (Calderón and Bonilla, 2007).

Migration has been an integral part of Costa Rican development. Beginning especially in the 1980s, Costa Rica played a central role as a destination country for diverse migration flows in an increas- ingly merged Central American migration system (Voorend and Robles, 2010; Morales and Castro, 2006). At the same time, a small percentage of the Costa Rican population migrated to different countries within and outside the region (Caamaño Morúa, 2010; Sandoval, 2005).


Because of economic stagnation in the Central American Region during the 1980s, emigration flows increased (Gatica, 2011). In 1980, more than 38,000 Costa Rican emigrants were registered as living abroad, and these shifts were basically directed outside the region (90%), with very little to Central American countries (10%) (De los Ángeles and Valverde, 2002). By 1990, a total of 57,000 Costa Ricans lived abroad, equivalent to 1.8% of the total population of approximately 3 million people, a similar proportion to that which existed ten years earlier (Calderón and Bonilla, 2007).

Emigration to the United States began in the decade of the 1980s, instigated by the fall in the global market price of coffee and the effects of structural adjustment policies in the Costa Rican agricul- tural sector (Caamaño, 2007). Costa Ricans, along with other Central American emigrants, found the U.S. to be an attractive destination, some in search of better economic opportunities and others for political and social refuge (Mahler and Ugrina, 2006).

According to the 1980 census, the United States (29,639) may be identified as the principal recipi- ent of Costa Ricans, followed by Panama (3,359), Mexico (1,841), and Venezuela (1,713). By 1990, the number of Costa Ricans in the United States had grown in absolute and relative terms. Of the total of Costa Ricans outside Central America (approximately 44,800), the United States was home to more than 39,000 of them, followed by Mexico (approximately 1,500). Both censuses (1980 and 1990) showed that extra-regional emigrants (living outside Central America) were of similar age and mostly women (De los Ángeles and Valverde, 2002).

In 2008 there were estimates of about 182,500 Costa Rican migrants, of which approximately 74% percent (134,800 people) was concentrated in North America, while the Central American region was home to almost 11% percent (19,800) of them, a figure lower than that of the rest of the desti- nation countries (15%) (Estado de la Nación, 2008).