Brazil’s humane refugee policies put developed countries to shame

. Feb 18, 2020
refugee Venezuelan family flying from the crisis, begging for work and money on the streets. Photo: Jarno Verdonk/Shutterstock

In the eyes of more developed nations, the global south is often seen as a source of refugees, and it is not uncommon to see policies implemented to make it harder for these individuals to be welcomed into the U.S., United Kingdom, or major European nations. However, Brazil recently set a bold precedent that could force the global north to adjust its lens: the country’s policies toward Venezuelan refugees, in contrast to their wealthier peers, has been pragmatic, humane and sensible.

Venezuela’s political, economic and social collapse has generated a population hemorrhage. More than 4.5 million—or one in seven Venezuelans—left, and most remain in South America. Colombia hosts around 1.5 million, while around 260,000 have entered Brazil across its northern border, at a rate of close to 500 per day.

</p> <p>Three elements of the Brazilian response stand out. First, Brazil has provided refugees with basic shelters and services at border towns, instead of curraling migrants into camps or detention centers. Brazil has partnered with United Nations agencies, as well as international, regional and domestic aid organizations that contribute financial and logistical assistance.&nbsp;</p> <p>The Brazilian government has also initiated a policy to redistribute some arrivals to other cities and states in Brazil, as a way of reducing the <a href="">burden on the country&#8217;s northernmost tip of Roraima</a>, which is also one of the poorest parts of the nation.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="refugee crisis venezuela roraima" class="wp-image-31755" srcset=" 754w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 754px) 100vw, 754px" /><figcaption>Venezuelans stand behind the Spanish sign reading ‘Venezuela-Brazil Limit’ near a border checkpoint in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil.</figcaption></figure> <p>Next, Brazil has expanded the scope of entitlement to refugee status. The 1984 Cartagena Declaration adopted a regional approach to refugee protection, mindful of the history of Latin American states as both sources and recipients of refugees.</p> <p>The definition of an international refugee contained in the UN&#8217;s 1951 Refugee Convention is individualistic and requires proof that applicants fear personal persecution. However, the Cartagena definition broadens that concept to include people who have fled their countries because their lives, safety, or freedom have been <a href="">threatened by generalized violence</a>, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed the public order.</p> <p>In June 2019, Brazil’s National Committee for Refugees issued a detailed report concluding that the crisis in Venezuela falls under the purview of the Cartagena Declaration. People labeled as migrants elsewhere because they fall outside the narrow terms of the UN Refugee Convention definition are included as refugees under the Cartagena rules.</p> <h2>Going the extra mile</h2> <p>In December 2019, Brazil took an even bolder step, dispensing with the need for individualized refugee status determination for each Venezuelan citizen seeking asylum.</p> <p>Applicants in Brazil—providing they have documentary proof of identity and do not have criminal records—will receive refugee status without needing to undergo an interview. Refugee status, in turn, entitles them to permanent residency, registered employment, public health care, education and other social services available to Brazilians.</p> <p>After four years, they may then apply for naturalization. Within the first month of the policy, about <a href="">21,000 Venezuelans were processed under this new system</a>.</p> <p>It is worth putting this into perspective: unlike the U.S. and Australia, Brazil has not set up detention centers, and has not separated families or locked up children as punishment to&nbsp; Venezuelans fleeing intolerable circumstances.</p> <p>That means that Brazil has not been wasting its scarce resources on nasty and futile deterrence strategies. The country also adheres to a definition of refugees which meets the particularities of contemporary patterns of forced migration. Furthermore, unlike other states and their sophisticated systems for granting or denying refugee status, Brazil’s group-based recognition of Venezuelans avoids a backlog of asylum applications.</p> <p>Resources that would have been wasted processing individual Venezuelan asylum claims will be directed at managing settlement and integration, and on analyzing the cases of refugees from other places.</p> <h2>Just passing through</h2> <p>Not all Venezuelans who arrive in Brazil are asylum seekers, however.</p> <p>Many <a href="">move through Brazil</a> in order to be reunited with their family or friends in other South American countries such as Argentina or Chile. Others go back and forth between Brazil and Venezuela to deliver food, medicine, and other necessities to families and communities who remain there. Also, some do not wish to see themselves as refugees, so do not claim that legal status.</p> <p>Brazil also allows Venezuelans to obtain two-year renewable residence permits that give them access to employment and public services such as health care and education.</p> <p>There is good reason to believe that whether they are admitted on temporary visas or permanently as refugees, most Venezuelans will go home voluntarily if and when the circumstances that caused them to flee have improved. That’s another advantage of regional integration programs that enable people to live, work and continue their lives in proximity to their country of origin.</p> <p>Regional solidarity plays somewhat of a paradoxical role in 2020s Brazil. The Cartagena Declaration and regional free movement initiatives in the Mercosur trade bloc show the emergence of South American cooperation in immigration issues.</p> <p>Meanwhile, Brazil&#8217;s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has not distinguished himself in the past as a champion of refugees and displaced populations. One wonders whether his <a href="">antipathy toward Venezuela&#8217;s President Nicolás Maduro</a> might be behind the hospitality Brazil continues to show to Venezuelans fleeing Mr. Maduro’s regime, which would be reminiscent of Cold War refugee politics. Whatever the motive, the current policy deserves praise.</p> <h2>Creases to iron out</h2> <p>The system is certainly not perfect, however. Brazil is a middle-income country that is highly unequal, so the quality and availability of public services are not consistent.</p> <p>Bureaucratic inefficiency and lack of coordination between different branches of the state cause delays and confusion. Venezuela is not the only source of asylum seekers in Brazil, with a significant number of people coming to the country from Haiti, Africa, and the Middle East.</p> <p>Local aid organizations are struggling to fill service gaps, but their resources are also strained by the surge in Venezuelan arrivals.</p> <p>The absence of habitable and affordable accommodation is also a massive and critical problem in Brazil. Refugees may have no alternative but to live in <a href="">extremely dangerous and violent places</a>.</p> <p>Language training is weak, even though Portuguese is relatively easy for Spanish speakers to learn. While <a href="">refugees can lawfully seek work</a>, some employers still take advantage of newcomers by overworking and underpaying them.</p> <p>These are problems. But they are better problems to have than thousands of severely traumatized children, thousands of drowning deaths in the Mediterranean and the abuse, torture, rape, and killing of people seeking refuge in the detention centers of Libya or Manus Island.</p> <p>The rest of the world has something to learn from Brazil. If the country can find an efficient, <a href="">pragmatic way to welcome</a>, protect and integrate hundreds of thousands of forced migrants arriving at its border, so can more affluent states. Good ideas—like good people—can migrate north, and we should welcome them.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="alignleft"><img src="" alt="the conversation brazil article" class="wp-image-398" srcset=" 300w, 768w, 1024w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /></figure></div> <h6 style="text-align:right">Originally published on<br><a href=""><strong>The Conversation</strong></a></h6> <img src="" alt="The Conversation" width="1" height="1" style="border: none !important; box-shadow: none !important; margin: 0 !important; max-height: 1px !important; max-width: 1px !important; min-height: 1px !important; min-width: 1px !important; opacity: 0 !important; outline: none !important; padding: 0 !important; text-shadow: none !important"> <p>

Audrey Macklin

Professor and Chair in Human Rights Law, Director of the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies, University of Toronto

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