Venezuelans flee crisis at home but face rising tensions in Brazil
An increasing number of migrants leaving Venezuela are in need of the international protections normally granted asylum seekers. Most Venezuelans have been finding refuge in other neighboring South American countries. Unfortunately many of those who have fled to Brazil have experienced increasing levels of xenophobia.
About 5,000 people leave Venezuela every day. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, at least 1.9 million Venezuelan citizens have left the country since 2015, fleeing from the economic and political crisis that the country is experiencing under President Nicolás Maduro. Most other Venezuelans have landed in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
Receiving countries—which often face their own issues with poverty and social inequality—have applied more stringent border controls against Venezuelans, and deteriorating conditions threaten to escalate into a regional crisis.
According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, at least 1.9 million Venezuelan citizens have left the country since 2015.
“We are aware of the growing challenges related to the massive arrival of Venezuelans in these countries,” said Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, during a press conference in August in Geneva. “It remains critical to allow those in need of international protection to access security and seek asylum,” he added.
International authorities’ greatest concern are for the most vulnerable people—adolescents, women, unaccompanied children and those who want to be reunited with their families abroad.
Rosita Milesi, C.S., the founding director of the Institute of Migration and Human Rights in Brazil, told America that migration has always been an issue in the region, but the Venezuelan situation requires special attention.
“Their country has been facing a serious political, economic and humanitarian crisis, forcing its citizens to seek survival in other places,” she said.
“Venezuelans have been experiencing a widespread lack of state protection and violation of their fundamental rights. Food, medicine and health care are lacking. Hyperinflation drastically reduces the purchasing power of the population,” Sister Milesi said. According to an Amnesty International report released in December 2017, the basic food basket for a Venezuelan family of five people, thanks to hyperinflation, now costs 60 times more than the minimum wage.
Brazil is not the main destination for Venezuelans—Spanish-speaking countries are preferred—and it is where Venezuelans have had the greatest difficulties integrating successfully. Episodes of xenophobia and violence against immigrants have become frequent, especially in the Brazilian state of Roraima.
The basic food basket for a Venezuelan family of five people, thanks to hyperinflation, now costs 60 times more than the minimum wage.
In mid-August, 1,200 Venezuelans returned to their country after the camp where they were living while waiting to receive Brazilian documents was set upon and burned by locals in the border town of Pacaraima. The violence apparently was provoked when family members of a Brazilian merchant claimed he had been assaulted by Venezuelans. In September, hundreds of other Venezuelans left Brazil for home, afraid of experiencing similar violence. Local Brazilian politicians have exploited the issue during their election campaigns and spread rumors against Venezuelans on social media.
Nevertheless each day, an average of 400 to 500 Venezuelans arrive in Pacaraima. Since 2017, local Brazilians have complained of an increase in violence and disorderly conditions, blaming this on Venezuelans.
Because of the Venezuelan crisis, Brazilians are called to show solidarity with migrants, Sister Milesi said. Unfortunately, she added, Roraima is a poor state with “absolutely no capacity” to welcome, shelter and offer employment opportunities to Venezuelans arriving there.
According to Sister Milesi, the response by the Brazilian national government has been too slow to help integrate Venezuelans, leaving too much of a burden on Roraima State. The population of Roraima is approximately 500,000; it has the lowest G.D.P. among Brazilian states. Since the crisis began in their home country, Venezuelans have come to represent around 10 percent of the Roraima population.
A federal emergency assistance committee was created in February to manage shelters in Roraima and facilitate the “internalization” of migrants in other Brazilian states. “These measures are still incipient and insufficient for the management of the Venezuelan migratory flow,” Sister Milesi said.
A Brazilian missionary in Roraima, Sister Telma Lage, coordinator of the Center for Migration and Human Rights of the Diocese of Roraima, believes that the national government must begin to treat Venezuelans not as a migration problem, but as a welcome economic resource.
“Immigration has transformed the economy of Roraima, once very restricted to public [sector] jobs. Many immigrant families rent houses, stay here and buy food, clothing, shoes, medicines and other goods to send to relatives who remain in Venezuela,” Sister Lage said.
In this context, the local church has focused on helping migrants obtain documents and protecting their rights under Brazilian law. The church has led the fight against human trafficking in the region and has been teaching Portuguese to the Spanish-speaking migrants. It has been helping them find jobs and assisting them to live their faith under difficult circumstances.
“Pope Francis’ teaches the church to pursue four fundamental actions for migrants and refugees: to welcome, protect, promote and integrate them,” said Sister Milesi. “We try to ensure that our initiatives are not isolated, but comprehensive, in order to ensure that Venezuelans can effectively rebuild their lives in Brazil,” she said.