Members of Nicaragua's Special Forces patrol the streets after clashes with anti-government protesters in the Sandino neighborhood in Jinotepe, Nicaragua, July 24, 2018.
Members of Nicaragua's Special Forces patrol the streets after clashes with anti-government protesters in the Sandino neighborhood in Jinotepe, Nicaragua, July 24, 2018.

GENEVA - The U.N. refugee agency says it is increasing humanitarian operations to meet the needs of thousands of refugees fleeing violence and persecution in Nicaragua.

Most of the refugees are fleeing to Costa Rica.  The U.N. refugee agency reports nearly 8,000 asylum claims by Nicaraguans have been registered since mid-April.  That was when protests against a government proposal to reduce pension benefits erupted in Nicaragua.

The UNHCR says 15,000 more asylum claims are waiting to be registered because Costa Rica’s ability to process the refugees is being overwhelmed.  Spokesman William Spindler says the UNHCR and other agencies are gearing up to provide immediate protection and assistance to increasing numbers of Nicaraguans fleeing their country.

"Many arriving Nicaraguans are being hosted by an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 Nicaraguan families living already in Costa Rica, who are providing an initial safety net for friends, relatives and fellow citizens," Spindler said.  

During the past three months, a government crackdown on student protests in Nicaragua reportedly has killed nearly 300 people and injured more than 2,000. 

Spindler tells VOA reports of mounting political tensions, violence and human rights violations in the country are backed up by eyewitness accounts.  He recounts the case of a 32-year-old woman and her reasons for fleeing.

"She was asked what incident made her leave Nicaragua and she said she has received many death threats.  She has been persecuted, she and her family, and people threatened to burn their house down," Spindler said.   

While most refugees are fleeing to Costa Rica, the UNHCR says a growing number of Nicaraguans in need of international refugee protection are lodging claims in Panama, Mexico and the United States.  It says Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are becoming countries of transit.