Brasilia: Brazil has recently been going through tough times. Corruption scandals against the ruling party, a call for impeachment of their president, Dilma Rousseff, a bad economic situation, credit-rating downgrade, high inflation and unemployment, the list is almost endless. Rousseff, in a video posted online to mark Brazil’s 193rd Independence Day on September 7, acknowledged the fact that her party could have made mistakes but will overcome and move on. She described the ongoing austerity measures as bitter remedies for the situation and that they were indispensable for recovering the economy.
She then added, “We are a nation that is formed by people from diverse origins. In spite of crises and hard times, such as now, we will continue to welcome refugees with open arms. Those that are being sent out of their motherland and are looking at Brazil to come here, live, work and contribute to Brazil’s peace and prosperity [will be] welcomed.”
Brazil is leagues away from the world’s principal conflict zones and has been receiving an increasing number of refugees across its war-free borders. The Brazilian national law number 9.474/97, commonly known as the Law of the Refugees, defines a refugee as a person who has been forced out of her country of origin and has been a victim of human rights violation in respect to her race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion.
The Brazilian Ministry of Justice, the primary organ responsible for foreigners in Brazil, says in a report published on August 19 (World Humanitarian Day) that in 2015 alone the country has welcomed 8,400 legally recognised refugees while 12,600 more are in the process of recognition – not taking into account the 45,000* pending Haitian refugee requests. These numbers seem miniscule when compared to global statistics. The office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has estimated that the number of people affected by conflicts and persecution has reached almost 60 million, with some 20 million forced to leave their own country as refugees. Luiz Fernando Godinho, spokesperson for UNHCR in Brazil, said, “There has never been such a number of refugees moving forcibly.” According to him, these figures are result of a combination of recent conflicts – such as in Syria – and the perpetuation of old ones – such as those in Afghanistan and the Congo.
The significant growth in refugees in the last two years in Brazil has prompted the National Committee for Refugees (CONARE), affiliated to the Ministry of Justice, to release and follow a set of measures to make the recognition process easier for refugees, although there are still some cases where it can stretch to a couple years. UNHCR Brazil also said it would help refugees in all possible ways. But unlike most other countries, refugees can seek gainful employment while they wait, and access public healthcare and education services.
The ministry launched a campaign with the slogan “O Brasil é uma oportunidade de vida” (‘Brazil gives you the opportunity to live your life’), in August. It leverages the stories of 18 refugees to raise awareness and clarifies the country’s international commitments, and places great importance on the availability of shelter.
As Rousseff noted, Brazil is a country formed by immigrants. Their presence has always been strong and in the mainstream. Between 1880 and 1905, there’d been an influx of almost 2 million Europeans, mostly from Italy, Portugal, Germany and Spain, followed by immigrants from Ukraine, Lithuania, Hungary and Armenia, as well as from eastern Asia. Then, in the decade of the First World War, another 2.1 million Europeans arrived in Brazil. The country also boasts of the largest Japanese population outside of Japan, who number over 1.6 million, as well as over 12 million Arabians who arrived in the 1950s and 1960s. Finally, between 1550 and 1850, Portuguese slave traders transported some 6 million Africans to the country.
Creating a legitimate alternative
Of the 8,400 refugees who received legal recognition in 2015, 70.7% are men and 65.62% are between 18 to 39 years. In all, 2,077 are Syrians, 1,480 are Angolans, 1,093 are Colombians, 844 are Congolese, 389 Lebanese, and the rest are divided between Iraq, Palestine, Bolivia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Among those awaiting recognition, people from Senegal lead the lot with 2,287, followed by those from Ghana with 1,195.
Most of the refugees from Middle East and Africa arrive in Brazil with a valid short-term visa at international airports like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro as an alternative to the dangerous sea route to Europe.
The 45,000 Haitian applicants arrive in the country without any visa and do not fit in any of the criteria of the Law of Refugees. They started to trickle in after the devastating earthquake in January 2010. According to the state government of Acre, Haitians have been entering Brazil through the state of Acre that borders Peru, by land. Following a significant increase in irregular immigration in the last few years, the National Immigration Council started granting of humanitarian visas to Haitians. The aim has been to formalise the entry of these foreigners and create a legitimate alternative to the dangerous practices of human trafficking networks. The visa is issued by the Embassy of Brazil in Port au Prince, Haiti, and in Quito, Ecuador, a country often chosen as an alternative path to Brazil.
Muhammad Abdul Raouf, 28, is an Afghan refugee awaiting official recognition of his refugee request. He came to Brazil in the end of 2014 and stayed back. Like many others, he didn’t have it easy adapting to the country’s unique Latin American culture. He often felt and had problems communicating in Portuguese, and to make matters worse was also robbed twice. Luckily, he soon met with a compatriot in Sao Paulo and through him came to know of a small group of people from Afghanistan living in the outskirts of the city. Later, he moved to live with them. But even with their help, he continued to find the language barrier was intimidating. “It was very hard at first, but I was open-minded. I was determined to stay,” he explains.
And stay he has. He says Brazil is a nice country and that the people have been very helpful and friendly, that they always welcome foreigners with open arms. Now he dreams of settling down in Sao Paulo and bringing his wife and son from Afghanistan to live with him. “If they come here, everything will be great. I have a good job and do not need anything else,” he says.
But while Brazilians have been welcoming immigrants, the prevailing dismal economic situation strains the sentiment in some cases. Paola, whose grandfather came to Brazil from Italy in the 1950s, says, her country “has a lot of things to do. It will be a hard process to adapt to Brazil, but with the government’s and the people’s support they will definitely find it a better place to live.” Whatever Rousseff’s failings, her government’s support of an almost 70-year-old tradition to rebuild the country with people from around the world has found good favour among immigrants.
Aravind Krishnan runs a consulting firm helping Indian companies do business in Brazil and vice-versa. He moved to the country in 2008 and now considers himself a quase Brasileiro.