Chapter 3. Understanding the methodological framework used in Costa Rica

In order to provide an empirical foundation to the analysis of the links between migration and policy, the Interrelations between Public Policies, Migration and Development (IPPMD) project used three evidence-gathering tools: household surveys, community surveys, and interviews with representatives of public, private, non-government and international institutions to provide additional qualitative information about the migration context in Costa Rica.

This chapter explains how the sampling framework was designed and implemented, as well as the statistical approaches used in this report to analyse the link between key policy sectors and emigration, immigration, return migration and remittances. The chapter also includes descriptive statistics drawn from the survey data. It outlines some key characteristics of the migrants in the sample as well as some background on immigration, emigration, remittances and return migration.


The Interrelations between Public Policies, Migration and Development (IPPMD) project framework is empirically based. In order to provide evidence-based analysis on the interrelationship between migration and the various sectors under study (Chapter 1), the project carried out data collection in Costa Rica from February to July 2015. The OECD Development Centre developed three analytical tools for the fieldwork, each tailored to the Costa Rican context, in collaboration with the Central American Center for Population studies (Centro Centroamericano de Población) (CCP) at the University of Costa Rica, who conducted the fieldwork. The three tools included:

  1. A household survey, administered to 2 236 households (see Box 3.1 for definitions). The household questionnaire gathered information about individual and household characteristics related to five key development sectors: 1) the labour market; 2) agriculture; 3) education; 4) investment and financial services; and 5) health and social protection, as well as household members’ experience with immigration, emigration, remittances and return migration. It also asked about their experience of specific public policies which may affect their migration and remitting patterns. More details on the specific modules of the household survey can be found in Annex 3.A2.

  2. A community survey, carried out in the 15 communities where the household survey took place. Respondents were community representatives with good local knowledge. The questionnaire gathered information on the community’s demographic, social and economic background as well as the existence of policies and development programmes. Existing secondary data at community level were also used.1

  3. Stakeholder interviews: 49 interviews were held with representatives of government ministries and other public institutions, non-government organisations, private sector institutions, academia and international organisations based in Costa Rica. These interviews were used to collect qualitative information on trends, policies, opinions and predictions related to various aspects of migration in the country. The information they provided helped enrich and interpret the quantitative data by including additional details on Costa Rica’s specific context.

This chapter describes how these tools were implemented in Costa Rica. It explains the sampling design adopted for the household and community surveys, and outlines the analytical approach taken in the study. Finally, it presents basic descriptive statistics on the four migration dimensions analysed in the report: emigration, remittances, return migration and immigration.

How were the households and communities sampled?

The first step in the sampling design was to create a sampling frame. A challenge with migration surveys is to design a sampling strategy that ensures a significant representation of migrant households in the sample. Data on immigration and emigration in Costa Rica have traditionally come from two sources: census data and household surveys. Both the 2000 and 2011 censuses included questions on the mother’s place of residence at the time of a person’s birth, year of arrival in Costa Rica for foreign born individuals, nationality, and place of residence five years before the survey date. In the 2011 census, a question was added to estimate the number of households that had a former member living abroad. An annual household survey carried out by the National Statistics Office (INEC) also includes questions on mother’s residence at the time of birth, and the respondent’s place of residence two years before the survey date.

The census data show that immigrants and households with members living abroad are concentrated in certain districts. The country as a whole is divided into 472 districts – approximately 58% of the foreign-born population lives in 126 districts. The percentage of the foreign-born population in these districts ranges from 10% to 45%. Only 12 of these districts have more than 25% of the foreign-born population and 57 have more than 15%. Most of the districts with a high percentage of foreign-born people are sparsely populated. The same pattern is true for households with emigrants: almost half of the households with emigrants are located in 106 of the country’s 472 districts.

The second step in the sampling involved selecting the districts for enumeration. Given the high concentration of immigrants and households with emigrants in a few districts, sample selection was done in three strata involving districts with an above-average percentage of immigrants or households with emigrants:

  1. districts in the urban section of San José (Casco Central de San José in Table 3.1)

  2. districts in the northern part of the country close to the Nicaraguan border, with a high percentage of immigrant households (Zona Norte fronteriza in Table 3.1)

  3. districts in the southern part of the country with a high concentration of households with emigrants (Pérez Zeledón in Table 3.1).

Table 3.1. Household distribution, by geographical area

Casco Central de San José

Zona Norte fronteriza (Northern border zone)

Pérez Zeledón


Households with migrants





Households without migrants




1 299


1 231



2 236

Migrant households

Households with at least one emigrant





Households with at least one immigrant





Households with at least one return migrant





Note: The migrant household groups in the lower part of the table are not mutually exclusive, e.g. a household with an emigrant and an immigrant falls both in the category of households with emigrants, and in the category of households with immigrants.

Source: Authors’ own work based on IPPMD data.

In each of these strata, a sample of census tracts was selected. According to INEC, census tracts include approximately 60 dwellings each. In order to avoid an excessive concentration of interviews in very few tracts, each census tracts was divided into three partial tracts of approximately 20 dwellings each. The strategy followed was to randomly select one of the three partial tracts and then to visit each dwelling in that partial tract. If the number of interviews obtained after a second visit was less than 20, the interviewers could move on to another partial tract within the same census tract. Clear instructions were given to supervisors on where to begin interviews and on how to select the second census tract when it was needed.

Given the high concentration of immigrants and emigrants in the selected enumeration areas, the sampling design did not include any element of over-sampling of migrant households. The enumerators began every interview with a series of questions to identify emigrants, immigrants and return migrants in the household so as to categories the household into one of the following groups: households without migrants, households with immigrants and households with emigrants and/or return migrants (see Box 3.1 for definitions).

Box 3.1. Key definitions of the household survey

A household consists of one or several persons, irrespective of whether they are related or not, who normally live together in the same housing unit or group of housing units and have common cooking and eating arrangements.

A household head is the most respected/responsible member of the household, who provides most of the needs of the household, makes key decisions and whose authority is recognised by all members of the household.

The main respondent is the person who is most knowledgeable about the household and its members. He or she may be the head, or any other member (aged 18 or over). The main respondent answers the majority of the modules in the questionnaire, with the exception of the immigrant and return migrant modules which were administered directly to the immigrants and returnees themselves. As it was not possible to interview migrants who were abroad at the time of the survey, questions in the emigrant module were asked of the main respondent.

A migrant household is a household with at least one current international emigrant, return migrant or an immigrant.

A non-migrant household is a household without any current international emigrant, return migrant or immigrant.

An international emigrant is an ex-member of the household who has left to live in another country, and who has been away for at least three consecutive months without returning.

An international return migrant is a current member of a household who was born in Costa Rica, but had previously been living in another country for at least three consecutive months before returning to the country.

An international immigrant is a current member of the household who was born in another country, and has lived at least three months in Costa Rica.

International remittances are cash or in-kind transfers from international emigrants. In the case of in-kind remittances, the respondent is asked to estimate the value of the goods the household received.

A remittance-receiving household is a household that received international remittances in the past 12 months prior to the survey. Remittances can be sent by former members of the household as well as by migrants that have never been part of the household.

Household surveys

The household survey data collection took place from 11 February to 30 July 2015. Pilot tests, one in an urban area and one in a rural area, were carried out first in order to test the questionnaire. Following the pilot tests, the questionnaire was revised in order to correct wording and especially to refine the identification of inmigrants, emigrants, and return migrants. Several training sessions were held prior to beginning the fieldwork. An interviewers’ manual was prepared to guide these sessions and any other training necessary during the fieldwork. Clear instructions were issued on how to cover the partial census tracts.

During the fieldwork reports were issued every week by the supervisor, detailing the census tracts visited and results for each of the census tracts. The fieldwork reports highlighted a number of challenges in the field. Certain enumeration areas, particularly in urban areas of San José, had high rates of crime, which meant that not all interviews could be carried out. In response, the number of sampled households was increased in adjacent census tracts. Another challenge in urban areas was the existence of gated residential areas which made it difficult for the interviewers to visit houses or apartments included in the sample. This occurred mainly in middle and upper middle-class areas. Difficult access due to weather and road condition in rural areas also resulted in delays of the fieldwork.

A final challenge was related to the share of migrants in the sample. While the share of immigrants in the final sample was as expected from the sampling design, the share of emigrant households was much lower than expected. This was partly due to a higher none-response rate among emigrant households, but also due to an over-estimation of emigrant households in the census data. For example, households with more distant relatives who had never been part of the household but who had emigrated abroad were sometimes incorrectly identified as emigrant households. The combination of these factors resulted in a sample with a significantly lower share of emigrant households than the original target. The final sample includes 937 migrant households (households with one emigrant, immigrant and/or return migrant), representing 42% of the total sample (Table 3.1). Among the migrant households, 757 were immigrant households, while 127 households have a return migrant, and only 95 have at least one emigrant.

Community surveys

The community questionnaire included around 75 questions designed to gather demographic, social and economic information on the communities, information about policies and programmes implemented in the localities, the share of households that currently have a family member living in another country and their most common country of residence, and the most common occupational activities of those living in the community.

A small research team from CCP was responsible for carrying out the community survey. A total of 15 community surveys were carried out, covering the communities where the household survey was implemented. Data were collected in two steps. The first step involved searching for information in registers or other secondary data sources, such as official publications or government statistics. This included information such as population statistics and weather related data. The second step involved collecting the remaining information through interviews with local government representatives with good knowledge of the community using the questionnaire described above.

Stakeholder interviews

In order to supplement the quantitative data, semi-structured interviews with stakeholders from different backgrounds were conducted using an interview guide developed by the OECD Development Centre. The guide was divided into five topics:

  1. general awareness of migration

  2. actions, programmes and policies directly related to migration

  3. main actions, programmes and policies likely to have a link with migration

  4. perceptions of migration-related issues

  5. co-ordination with other stakeholders on migration.

Questions for each topic were modified according to whether the institution interviewed was working on migration issues directly or indirectly, and its role vis-à-vis migration policy. In total, 49 qualitative interviews were carried out from 1 November to 25 March 2015. This includes interviews with 20 representatives from public institutions, such as government ministries, local governments and key public institutions; as well as with representatives from civil society, the private sector, labour unions, academia and international organisations (Table 3.2). The interviews were conducted in Spanish by an experienced qualitative researcher at CCP.

Table 3.2. Summary of interviewees for qualitative interviews, by type of organisation

Type of organisation

Number of interviews

Public institutions


International organisations/academia




Private sector and labour unions




How were the data analysed?

Having described the tools used to collect data for the project, this section provides an overview of how the data were analysed, followed by a general overview of the key migration characteristics of the sample. The remaining chapters in the report present the results of the analysis on the links between migration and public policies.

The analysis in this report incorporates both statistical tests and regression analysis. Statistical tests determine the likelihood that the relationship between two variables is not caused by chance:

  • A t-test compares the means of a dependent variable for two independent groups. For example, it is used to test if there is a difference between the average number of workers hired by agricultural households with emigrants and those without.

  • A chi-squared test is used to investigate the relationship between two categorical variables, such as private school attendance (which only has two categories, yes or no) by children from two types of households: those receiving remittances and those not.

These types of statistical tests do not control for other factors. Regression analysis, on the other hand, is useful to ascertain the quantitative effect of one variable upon another while controlling for other factors that may also influence the outcome. The household and community surveys included rich information about households, their members, and the communities in which they live. This information was used to create control variables that were included in the regression models in order to single out the effect of a variable of interest from other characteristics of the individuals, households and communities that may affect the outcome, such as the household’s business investments or an individual’s plans to emigrate.

Two basic regression models were used in the analysis: ordinary least square (OLS) and probit models. The choice of which one to use depends on the nature of the outcome variable. OLS regressions are used when the outcome variable is continuous (i.e. can take on an infinite number of values). Probit models are used when the outcome variable can only have two values, such as owning a business or not.

The analysis of the interrelations between public policies and migration was performed at both household and individual level, though this depended on the topic and hypothesis investigated. The analysis for each sector is divided into two sections:

  • The impact of a migration dimension on a sector-specific outcome


  • The impact of a sectoral development policy on a migration outcome


The regression analysis rests on four sets of variables:

  1. A) Migration, comprising: (1) migration dimensions including emigration (sometimes using the proxy of an intention to emigrate in the future), remittances, return migration and immigration; and (2) migration outcomes, which cover the decision to emigrate, the sending and use of remittances, the decision and sustainability of return migration, and the integration of immigrants.

  2. B) Sectoral development policies: a set of variables representing whether an individual or household took part or benefited from a specific public policy or programme in five key sectors: the labour market, agriculture, education, investment and financial services, and social protection and health.

  3. C) Sector-specific outcomes: a set of variables measuring outcomes in the project’s sectors of interest, such as labour force participation, investment in livestock rearing, school attendance and business ownership.

  4. D) Household and individual-level characteristics: a set of socio-economic and geographical explanatory variables that tend to influence migration and sector-specific outcomes.

What do the surveys tell us about migration in Costa Rica?

Overall, the 2 236 household surveys collected information on 7 847 individuals. Of these, 1 578 were immigrants living in 753 households, representing 34% of the households in the sample. Data were also collected on 113 emigrants, from 95 households, constituting 4% of the households in the sample, while 6% of the households in the sample have a return migrant (Figure 3.1).

Figure 3.1. Share of households, by migration experience

Source: Authors’ own work based on IPPMD data.

The prevalence of emigrant and return migrant households in the sample varies across regions (Figure 3.2). The geographical zone of Perez Zeledón has a larger share of emigrants, whereas in Zona Norte fronteriza and Casco Central de San José a large majority of the migrant sample are immigrants.

Figure 3.2. Pérez Zeledón has the highest shares of emigrant and return migrant households
Relative share of migrants per geographical zone (%)

Note: The category “diverse migration experience” includes households that have at least two of the other categories, e.g. a household with both a returnee and an emigrant.

Source: Authors’ own work based on IPPMD data.

Table 3.3 shows how household characteristics vary by migration experience. Households with return migrants are more likely than other household types to be in a rural area. Households with emigrants typically have fewer members than other households, especially households with immigrants. Households with immigrants are the most likely to have young children (aged 0-14); immigrant households also have a higher dependency ratio than the other household types. Female-headed households are most common among emigrant households, at 42%, and least common among return migrant households (23%). Return migrant households are the most likely to have a member who has completed post-secondary education (46%); this is far higher than the share in immigrant households (19%).

Table 3.3. Migrant households are wealthier on average than non-migrant households
Characteristics of sampled households

Total sample

Households without migrants

Households with emigrants

Households receiving remittances

Households with returnees

Households with immigrants

Number of households

2 236

1 299










Households in rural areas (%)







Household size







Dependency ratioa







Households with children (0-14 years, %)







Households with female heads (%)







Households with at least one member having completed post-secondary education (%)







Wealth indicatorb







Households with members planning to emigrate (%)c







Note: The groups in the column headings are not mutually exclusive, e.g. an household with an emigrant and an immigrant falls both in the category of households with emigrants, and in the category of households with immigrants.

a. The dependency ratio is the number of children and elderly persons divided by the number of people of working age.

b. The wealth indicator is standardised ranging from 0 to 100, with higher scores indicating wealthier households.

c. The share of households with a member planning to emigrate is based on a direct question to all adults (15 years or older) on whether or not they have plans to live and or work in another country in the future.

Source: Authors’ own work based on IPPMD data.

For the purposes of the analysis in Chapters 4 and 5, a household level wealth indicator was constructed based on questions in the household survey on the number of assets owned by the household, ranging from cell phones to real estate. The wealth indicator was constructed using principal component analysis. It suggests that households with an emigrant, return migrant, or receiving remittances are the richest, while households with immigrants are on average poorer than all other household groups (Table 3.3).

Having a member planning to emigrate is more common among households which already have migration experience. Fewer than 3% of households without migrants have a member who plans to emigrate, compared to 14% among households receiving remittances and close to 10% among households with an emigrant.

Table 3.4 summarises the characteristics of individuals from the sampled households broken down by whether they are non-migrants, returned migrants, current emigrants or immigrants. Returnees are the oldest group, with an average age of 48 years, compared to non-migrants (41 years), immigrants (39 years), and emigrants (37 years). Overall, women constitute 50% of the sample. Among emigrants the share of women is the lowest, at 28%, compared to 31% among return migrants and 52% for both non-migrants and immigrants. Immigrants have lower education levels than the native-born population in the sample: the share of immigrants with post-secondary education is 9%, compared to 19% among native-born people. Return migrants are on average the most educated: 32% have completed post-secondary education.

Table 3.4. Emigrants and return migrants are more likely to be male
Characteristics of adults in the sampled households



Return migrants


Number of individuals

4 456



1 474

Average age





Share of women (%)





Share (25+) having completed post-secondary education (%)





Note: Only adults (aged 15 and above) are included. The group of non-migrants includes individuals wwin households with and without migrants. To calculate education status, the analysis only included individuals aged 25 or over – the age by which they would have completed post-secondary level education.

Source: Authors’ own work based on IPPMD data.

Emigration patterns are different for men and women

Data collected on emigrants include information about their current country of residence, the time since they emigrated and the reasons why they left.2 Destination countries vary by gender, although for both men and women the main country of destination is the United States (Figure 3.3). A higher share of women (22%) than men (9%) migrate to other countries in Central America (Nicaragua, Mexico and Panama).

Figure 3.3. Emigrants mainly migrate to the United States
Emigrants’ current country of residence (%), by gender

Source: Authors’ own work based on IPPMD data.

The main reason given for emigrating also varies by gender. Men are mainly motivated by work, while a large share of the female migrants emigrated for marriage or family reasons (Figure 3.4). About 13% of the male emigrants left to study abroad, while for women this share is slightly higher, at 16%.

Figure 3.4. Most respondents emigrate for work
Relative share of reasons emigrants left (%), by gender

Source: Authors’ own work based on IPPMD data.

About half of the emigrants left Costa Rica more than ten years ago, 23% left between six and ten years ago and the remaining 28% left less than five years ago. About 5% of the emigrants are seasonal migrants, living only part of the year in another country. The share of seasonal migrants is similar for men and women.

Few households receive remittances

Around 43% of the emigrants in the sample have sent remittances home in the past 12 months. The average amount sent is around CRC 1 million (equivalent to USD 1 850). Overall, about 4% of the households in the sample receive remittances, and about half of them receive remittances from a former member who is currently abroad; 2% receive remittances from someone else, not previously living in the household (Figure 3.5). The low share of households receiving remittances is partially explained by the low rate of households with an emigrant, and partially by the low percentage of emigrants who send remittances home.

Figure 3.5. Few households in the sample receive remittances
Share of households that received remittances in the 12 months leading up to the survey (%)

Note: The category “households receiving remittances from a former member” does not imply that they solely receive remittances from a former member. This category includes households that receive remittances from other emigrants.

Source: Authors’ own work based on IPPMD data.

Most return migrants are satisfied to be back in Costa Rica

The country from which migrants return varies for men and women (Figure 3.6). Although most male and female returnees in the sample have returned from the United States, the share is significantly higher for men (76%) than for women (52%). Fewer migrants have returned from the United States than are currently residing there – both men and women. The opposite is true for Panama and Mexico: more migrants have returned from these countries than are currently living there. This suggests that migrants in Panama and Mexico are more likely to return than migrants in the United States.

Figure 3.6. Most return migrants have returned from the United States
Return migrants’ former countries of destination (%), by gender

Source: Authors’ own work based on IPPMD data.

Most migrants returned because they prefer to be in Costa Rica, but a significant portion, especially the men, returned because they lacked legal status in the destination country (Figure 3.7). A large majority (92%) of the return migrants are satisfied to be back in Costa Rica. Even so, around 12% had plans to emigrate again in the 12 months following the survey.

Figure 3.7. Most return migrants returned because they prefer to be in Costa Rica
Relative share of reasons return migrants returned (%), by gender

Note: Return migrants were given the chance to provide two reasons for returning, but only the first was taken into account.

Source: Authors’ own work based on IPPMD data.

Most immigrants come from Nicaragua

The household survey included a separate module for immigrants in the sample, with specific questions on their pre-migration situation, reasons for migrating and their experiences integrating in Costa Rica. Most immigrants were born in Nicaragua (Figure 3.8), with a small share coming from Colombia (3% of the women and 2% of the men). The data show no significant differences in origin country for male and female immigrants.

Figure 3.8. The majority of immigrants were born in Nicaragua
Immigrants’ country of origin (%), by gender

Source: Authors’ own calculation based on IPPMD data.

The most common reason for migrating to Costa Rica was better job opportunities (Figure 3.9). Being closer to family and friends, higher wages, better education opportunities, and already knowing people in Costa Rica were other important motives for choosing Costa Rica. The reasons are very similar across male and female immigrants. About 2.5% of the immigrants are seasonal, migrating regularly to Costa Rica for work. Thirteen percent of the immigrants state that they have suffered from discrimination in their locality in the past year.

Figure 3.9. Better job opportunities attract most immigrants to Costa Rica
Reasons for migrating to Costa Rica (%), by gender

Source: Authors’ own work based on IPPMD data.

On average, the immigrants in the sample have spent 12 years in Costa Rica. However, about a quarter arrived within the last two years (Figure 3.10). Overall, about half of the immigrants came in the past 10 years, 30% arrived between 10 and 20 years ago, and the remaining 20% have been in Costa Rica for over two decades. About 15% of immigrants have helped individuals from their country of origin to immigrate to Costa Rica, mainly by providing information, but also through financial aid and help with finding a job.

Figure 3.10. More than a quarter of immigrants have arrived in the past two years
Share of immigrants and number of years since immigration

Note: Each bar represents a two-year period; the starting time is given on the x-axis, e.g. the bar above 10 indicates the share of immigrants in the sample who arrived 10-12 years ago.

Source: Authors’ own work based on IPPMD data.

This chapter has presented the three tools – the household and community surveys and the qualitative stakeholder interviews – used to collect the data required to analyse the interrelation between migration, public policies and development. The following chapters take a sector-by-sector approach to presenting the results of the data analysis: the labour market, agriculture, education, and investment and financial services.

Annex 3.A1. Summary of the modules included in the Costa Rican household survey

Module 1

Household roster

The household roster includes questions on household characteristics, including the number of household members, relationship to the household head, sex, age, marital status etc. The module asks about intentions to migrate internationally of all household members aged 15 and above. The module also includes questions to identify return migrants and immigrants.

Module 2

Education and skills

The education module records information on child school attendance and child labour. It collects information about language skills, the educational attainment of all members, and a series of policy questions related to education. Education programmes in the questionnaire include scholarships, conditional cash transfers (CCTs) and distribution of school supplies.

Module 3

Labour market

The labour market module collects information on the labour characteristics of all household members aged 15 and above. This includes employment status, occupation and main sector of activity; and means of finding jobs which include government employment agencies. It also asks if members of the household participated in public employment programmes and vocational training.

Module 4

Expenditures, assets, income

This module contains questions on household expenditure patterns, asset ownership and various types of income sources.

Module 5

Investment and financial services

The investment module covers questions related to household financial inclusion, financial training and information on businesses activities. It also collects information about the main obstacles the household faces to operate its business, and if the household received government support through for example subsidies and tax exemptions.

Module 6

Agricultural activities

The agriculture module is administered to households involved in agricultural activities including farming, livestock husbandry and aquaculture. It records information about the agriculture plot (number of plots, size, crops grown, how the plot was acquired and the market potential) as well as information about the number and type of livestock raised. The module also collects information on whether households benefited from agricultural policies such as subsidies, agricultural related training or crop price insurance.

Module 7


The emigration module captures information on all ex-members of the household 15-years and above who currently live abroad, and their characteristics such as sex, age, marital status, relationship to the household head, language skills and educational attainment. It also collects information on destination countries, the reasons the migrant left the country and the employment status of the migrant both at the time of emigration and in the destination country.

Module 8

International remittances

The remittance module collects information on remittances sent by current emigrants. It records the frequency of receiving remittances and the amount received, the channels through which remittances were sent as well as the usage of remittances.

Module 9

Return migration

The return migrant module collects information on all members of the household, 15-years and above, who previously lived abroad for at least three consecutive months and returned to the country. It records information about the destination country, the duration of migration as well as the reasons for emigration and for return.

Module 10


The immigration module is administered to immigrants of the household 15-years and above, and captures information related to citizenship, reasons for immigration, employment status and occupation prior to immigration, and investments in the host country. The module also includes questions on discrimination in the host country.

Module 11

Health and social protection

The module on health and social protection concerns all members of the household 15-years and above, and gathers information about health visits and health and employment protection.


← 1. For example, secondary data from the latest census (in 2011) were used for some of the questions related to the population in the community, while data from the Meteorological Institute were used to answer weather-related community questions.

← 2. Given the relatively low response rate among emigrant households, resulting in a low number of emigrants in the total sample, data on emigrants should be interpreted with some caution. The sample may not be representative of the overall population of emigrants and households with emigrants, even though the countries of destination of emigrants in the sample are in line with official statistics.