Border town faces collapse as foreigners seek to flee Brazil

. Feb 19, 2021
immigrants south america crisis Immigrant is injured in confrontation with the Peruvian police. Photo: Alexandre Noronha/Amazônia Real

In 2010, a devastating earthquake killed over 200,000 people in Haiti. With the Caribbean nation left in tatters, thousands of Haitians pulled up stakes and headed for Brazil — which was enjoying an economic boom at the time. The point of entry for many of these migrants was the state of Acre, on Brazil’s westernmost tip and part of the Amazon Basin. As one of the country’s poorest and least populous states, Acre struggled with the sudden influx of Haitian people and declared a state of social emergency in 2013. The wave of migration lasted until 2014.

The following year, Brazil’s northernmost state Roraima began receiving an influx of Venezuelan immigrants who were fleeing political, economic, and social chaos in their home country.

The vast majority arrived through the small, impoverished border town of <a href="">Pacaraima</a>, which collapsed under the weight of the refugee crisis.</p> <p>In 2016, crisis in Brazil saw the influx of migrants fall by up to 96 percent. <a href="">The government also made efforts</a> to shelter <a href="">Venezuelan refugees in Pacaraima</a> and offer them opportunities in other cities and states, relieving the pressure on the fragile border town.</p> <p>Now, Acre is once again facing a migrant crisis, involving citizens from a range of countries. The majority are housed in improvised shelters in the small town of Assis Brasil — but they are not hoping to enter Brazil, they are trying to leave.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Almost a year of mass migration</h2> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="576" src="" alt="Peruvian police arrest Haitian immigrant trying to cross the border. Photo: Alexandre Noronha/Amazônia Real" class="wp-image-56924" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 1536w, 600w, 2000w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Peruvian police arrest a Haitian immigrant trying to cross the border from Brazil. Photo: Alexandre Noronha/Amazônia Real</figcaption></figure> <p>Since the beginning of the pandemic, immigrants have been flooding into Acre in their droves. With Brazil&#8217;s economic woes and widespread unemployment, these migrants are arriving in the border town of Assis Brasil to leave the country and set off for Mexico, the U.S., and Canada.</p> <p>In March of last year, as the number of migrants in Assis Brasil began to swell, the local administration declared a state of emergency and requested assistance from the federal government. That same month, Peru closed its borders, leaving the expatriates stranded in Acre.&nbsp;</p> <p>Local government reported that around 70 to 80 migrants were arriving in Assis Brasil each day on average. But this number fell at the beginning of the year. Peru began allowing people to cross the border and, at one point, there was only one immigrant remaining on the Brazilian side.</p> <p>However, the recent surge in Covid-19 cases and emergence of new variants caused Peru to close its borders once more. And Assis Brasil is filling up for a second time.</p> <h2>Violence and desperation on the border</h2> <p>Since the end of January, the number of immigrants in Assis Brasil has increased on a daily basis. Authorities say many of them are Haitian, Senegalese, and Venezuelan, who arrived in Brazil between 2010 and 2016 seeking a better life.&nbsp;</p> <p>Furthermore, Peru&#8217;s border closure only works in one direction. The government has allowed migrants to exit the country into Brazil, claiming that the measure will reduce their domestic coronavirus spread. As a result, refugees from both sides are being funnelled into the tiny town of Assis Brasil. The situation has become more severe in the last week, with episodes of violence and widespread desperation.</p> <p>On Sunday, around 400 immigrants left a shelter in Assis Brasil and assembled on the Ponte da Integração bridge, which serves as the entry point into Peru. Law enforcement from the Peruvian town of Iñapari blocked their passage, deploying heavily armed officers to man the border crossing.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="572" src="" alt="immigrants haiti brazil peru" class="wp-image-56925" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 1536w, 600w, 2000w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Peruvian police try to block border. Photo: Alexandre Noronha/Amazônia Real</figcaption></figure> <p>On Tuesday, the migrants confronted the police and made it into Iñapari. They were eventually rounded up by Peruvian law enforcement and sent back to Assis Brasil. Part of the group agreed to return to the refugee shelters, but others continue to occupy the Ponte da Integração bridge.</p> <p>The two Assis Brasil schools being used as refugee shelters are overcrowded. Some 270 people are housed in these facilities, and another 150 are camped on the border bridge. Others are spread around the town, sleeping on the street.</p> <p>Assis Brasil has Acre&#8217;s highest Covid-19 contagion rate. A town of roughly 7,500 people, it has recorded 1,037 coronavirus infections and 12 deaths. There are also 129 suspected cases of dengue fever in the city — the state of Acre is currently in a state of emergency due to an outbreak of the disease, further aggravating its Covid-19 pandemic response.</p> <h2>Smuggling immigrants across the border</h2> <p>The vast number of immigrants seeking to cross a legally impenetrable border has given rise to a local industry of so-called &#8220;coyotes,&#8221; who are individuals paid to smuggle people from one country to another.</p> <p>On Monday, a Peruvian man was arrested under suspicion of smuggling migrants between Brazil and Peru. On his person, police found U.S. Dollars, Peruvian Soles, and BRL 60,000 (USD 11,100) in cash. Police arrested another Peruvian man on Wednesday for the same crime.&nbsp;</p> <p>However, coyotes have always existed in Acre, as the state has roughly 22 municipalities which lie on borders with Peru and Bolivia.</p> <h2>Government sends in the troops</h2> <p>On Thursday, Brazil&#8217;s Justice Ministry issued an ordinance authorizing the deployment of the National Public Security Force in Acre. The measure will remain in effect for 60 days and may be extended.</p> <p>The order states that federal forces must assist &#8220;in the activities of temporary bans on the entry of foreigners in the country, in a planned and episodic manner.&#8221;</p> <p>In a statement, the Justice Ministry said troops were deployed on Wednesday and are already assembled at the Brazil-Peru border in Assis Brasil. The government stressed that the Acre state government holds jurisdiction over deciding whether to block migrant&#8217;s access to the city.&nbsp;</p> <p>The <a href="">Peruvian Embassy in Brazil</a> says it has requested municipal, state, and federal authorities to reach an agreement with the migrants so that they may leave the Ponte da Integração bridge and return to the shelters.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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