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  • Human Rights Research Center

Forced Displacement and Democratic-Backsliding in Nicaragua

December 19, 2023


Forced displacement and mass migration are issues that have persisted in Latin America for decades, however, both have increased dramatically in recent years. Forced migration is separated into four different subgroups: refugees, asylum-seekers, internally displaced people (IDPs), and other people in need of protection. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are now 110 million forcibly displaced people worldwide due to violence, human rights violations, conflict, and persecution (UNHCR, 2023). Currently, several countries in Latin America are experiencing mass migration and forced displacement due to lack of socioeconomic opportunities and poor governance. While there are many instances of mass migration in the region, this article will focus solely on events occurring in Nicaragua. The country is experiencing democratic backsliding and a shift toward authoritarianism at an alarming rate since President Daniel Ortega assumed power in 2007, causing thousands to flee the country every year.

Background Information

Since being elected to power, President Ortega has worked to overturn democratic safeguards to keep himself in power. Political oppression, human rights violations, and excessive force used to silence dissidents have all increased since his election. In 2009, he removed constitutional obstacles allowing him to run for another presidential term (BBC, 2022). As a result, President Ortega is now serving his fourth consecutive presidential term, with some voicing concerns over the credibility of the 2021 elections. Additionally, his wife Rosario Murillo has served as Vice President since 2017. The ruling couple have bought television stations to make them more sympathetic to the government while eliminating critics (Bermúdez and Robles, 2022). Nicaragua’s government is shifting toward authoritarianism with no end in sight putting their citizens at the highest risk.

Nicaragua is the second poorest nation in the Western hemisphere with around 30 percent of the population living below the poverty line in 2020 (USAID, 2023). Tensions reached a boiling point in 2018 when protesters all over the country assembled to voice their discontent over a bill proposing cuts to social security pensions. The bill proposed several changes, including an increased contribution to social security for employers and employees and a percentage of pension salary used for medical expenses. The protests birthed a movement called “Movimiento de 19 de abril” (the Movement of April 19). The protesters were met with extreme violence, leaving more than 300 dead, over 2,000 injured, and hundreds of opposition figures imprisoned (Amnesty International, 2023). Ortega's government rescinded the social security bill to pacify the situation, but protests and national strikes only increased.

As a result of the increasing violence and political crisis, many Nicaraguans have sought refuge in neighboring countries. The population of Nicaragua is slightly under 7 million people; an estimated 10 percent of Nicaragua's population has left the country (Bermúdez and Robles, 2022). The graph above demonstrates the number of Nicaraguan refugees leaving between 2017 until 2023 (estimate for 2023 is available until mid-year). Despite this, the number of Nicaraguan refugees reached an all-time high this year. Most Nicaraguans have fled to Costa Rica due to its proximity and economic stability (Ripley III, 2023). Furthermore, an estimated hundreds of thousands have made the journey across the US-Mexico border to reach the United States.

The graph above demonstrates the number of Nicaraguans asylum-seekers leaving the country from 2017 to 2023. Similar to the previous graph, the estimate for 2023 is available up to mid-year. The figures for 2022 and 2023 surpass 250,000 people, respectively. This is not the first time that Nicaragua has experienced mass migration and forced displacement. In the 1980s, the country suffered a civil war with about 200,000 people fleeing Nicaragua in the span of a decade (Bermúdez and Robles, 2022). On both graphs, the number of refugees and asylum-seekers increase significantly after 2018, which is the year of the protests and national strikes.


There are several concerns regarding the forced displacement and mass migration of Nicaraguans. These include the ability for countries to receive refugees and the rise of xenophobic sentiments in recipient countries. Even the most economically stable country cannot sustain such high rates of asylum-seekers and refugees. Since 2018, 154,000 Nicaraguans have sought refuge in Costa Rica, testing the nation’s ability to receive them and consequently straining the asylum system. As a result, the Costa Rican government has imposed new restrictions for asylum seekers (Ripley III, 2023). Furthermore, we need to consider the fact that Nicaraguans are not the only ones in the region fleeing to neighboring countries. People from all over Latin America are escaping political instability and authoritarianism.

Costa Rica is nicknamed “the Switzerland of Central America” and is often linked to embracing democratic traditions. However, the country has recently experienced a rise of xenophobic and nationalist sentiments. In 2018, there was a wave of protests in San Jose, Costa Rica over the entry of Nicaraguan refugees and asylum-seekers into the country (Angulo, 2018). These sentiments have only increased in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cortez and Rodriguez (2020) collected tweets from February to October 2020 and found that countries receiving migrants saw a 70 percent increase in anti-immigrant discourses on social media, compared to the year before. In August 2020, the Ministry of Health reported that 20 percent of registered COVID-19 cases occurred among foreigners in Costa Rica (Bran Aragón, 2023). While the report did not disclose the nationalities of those infected, it caused the media to speculate that most of the cases occurred among the Nicaraguan community.


Several countries in Latin America are currently experiencing an erosion of democracy and an increase in political repression, causing many to flee neighboring countries and raising concerns about the host country’s economic capacity to host refugees and migrants. While forced displacement and mass migration have been issues in Latin America for decades, they have increased in recent years. There are currently several countries in the region that are experiencing these issues with no end in sight. While Nicaragua continues to face political instability and democratic backsliding, people will continue to flee to find safety in neighboring countries. Humanitarian assistance and aid are necessary for countries receiving refugees and asylum-seekers so that they can continue helping vulnerable populations.



Asylum seeker: A person who has left their home country as a political refugee and is seeking asylum in another.

Internally displaced person (IDP): A person who is forced to leave their home but who remains within their country's borders.

Migrant: A person who moves from one place to another, especially in order to find work or better living conditions.

Refugee: A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.



Amnesty International. “Five Years of Oppression and Resistance in Nicaragua.” Amnesty International, 24 Apr. 2023,

Angulo, Eél María. “Costa Rica: Protestas Contra Migrantes Nicaragüenses.” France 24, FRANCE 24, 19 Aug. 2018,

BBC. “Daniel Ortega: From Revolutionary Leader to Opposition Hate Figure.” BBC News, BBC, 10 Jan. 2022,

Bermúdez, Alfonso Flores, and Frances Robles. “In Record Numbers, an Unexpected Migrant Group Is Fleeing to the U.S.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Dec. 2022,

Bran Aragón, Fiore. “Forced Migration, Integration, and Solidarity. Experiences of Nicaraguan ‘Autoconvocados’ in Costa Rica during COVID-19.” Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration, vol. 11, no. 1, Feb. 2023, pp. 46–64.

Cortes, Camila, and Marisol Rodriguez. “¿Qué Se Ha Dicho En Las Redes Sociales Sobre Los Migrantes Durante La Pandemia?” La Maleta Abierta, 20 Apr. 2022,

Ripley III, Charles G. “Crisis Prompts Record Emigration from Nicaragua, Surpassing Cold War Era.” Migrationpolicy.Org, 19 Apr. 2023,

UNHCR. “Refugee Data Finder.” UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, 2023,

UNHCR. “Venezuela Crisis: AID, Statistics and News: USA FOR UNHCR.” USA for UNHCR. The UN Refugee Agency, 2023,

USAID. “Nicaragua.” U.S. Agency for International Development, 21 Aug. 2023,


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