By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, April 16 (Openly) - Nearly one year after anti-government protests began in Nicaragua, tens of thousands of people have fled the country in fear for their lives, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
About 62,000 Nicaraguans have been forced from their homes in the Central American nation, of which 55,500 have sought safety in Costa Rica, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).
"The kinds of reasons that people have been giving for fleeing are the fear of losing their lives, being attacked or kidnapped by paramilitary groups," UNHCR spokesperson Elizabeth Throssell told journalists in Geneva.
"Some have received direct threats or have been persecuted; others fear for their lives because their communities have been a target of violence ... so we do feel that it is overwhelmingly a refugee flow."
Protests in Nicaragua first erupted last April when the leftist government of President Daniel Ortega moved to reduce welfare benefits, but since then have escalated into broader opposition.
Ortega, a Cold War-era former Marxist guerilla leader, has been in office since 2007.
At least 300 people have been killed, 2,000 injured and several hundred detained in a crackdown on protests in the past year, according to the U.N. human rights office.
Since then nearly 30,000 Nicaraguans have applied for asylum in Costa Rica, many of them students, former public officials, opposition figures, journalists, doctors, human rights defenders and farmers, according to government figures.
Costa Rica has maintained its open-door policy for migrants and refugees, but services are overstretched with about 26,000 Nicaraguans waiting to have their asylum claims processed, the UNHCR said.
"HIDDEN AMONG SACKS"
People, including families with young children, are now taking "extreme measures" to avoid being detected as they cross the border into Costa Rica, often walking for hours in the heat and through difficult terrain, the UNHCR said.
"Initially, it was mainly adults crossing the border, but families, including young children, are also now fleeing," Throssell said.
"The people who are fleeing are coming from different parts of Nicaragua and they are traveling to the Costa Rican border, trying to avoid contact with the police and paramilitary groups. Some are traveling in trucks, hidden among sacks," she said.
Both the U.N. human rights office and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) have reported human rights violations against Nicaraguans who have participated in anti-government protests and those who have helped them.
Last month, anti-government protesters took to the street again, demanding the release of all opposition prisoners.
The government said on March 20 it would release within 90 days all people arrested during months of protests against Ortega, as a step to restarting dialogue with opposition groups.
But without a political solution to the crisis in Nicaragua, people are likely to continue to flee, the UNHCR warned.
With the anniversary of the protests looming this Thursday, the U.N.'s human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, called on the government to refrain from using violence against protesters.
"I am concerned that the protests planned for later in the week may trigger another violent reaction," she said on Tuesday. (Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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