RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Haitian migrants are coming to Brazil in growing numbers without entry papers and are crowding into an Amazon shelter in dire conditions, prompting a human rights group to call on the Brazilian government to address a worsening regional problem.
More than 830 people, mostly from Haiti, are living in the border town of Brasileia, in the northwestern state of Acre, in a shelter built to house 200, according to human rights watchdog Conectas. About 40 new people are arriving every day.
The space has just 10 toilets, eight showers and no way to treat raw sewage in a region where temperatures can reach 40 degrees Celsius. A local hospital official said 90 percent of patients from the shelter have diarrhoea.
“It is inhuman. Haitians spend the night piled up, one on top of the other,” said João Paulo Charleaux, communications coordinator at Conectas, who visited the shelter.
Brasileia, located near Brazil’s western border with Peru and Bolivia, is a gateway for Haitian immigrants who arrive without visas due to bureaucratic problems in Port-au-Prince. They pay smugglers and fly from Haiti to Ecuador, before crossing Peru overland to reach Brasileia.
Brazil’s Ministry of Justice said federal police issue them with local documents, which can take less than 72 hours, and then the migrants look for jobs or wait until companies hire them and fly them to other parts of Brazil while their federal humanitarian visa application is processed.
In 2012, Brazil approved a humanitarian visa policy for Haitians, two years after the earthquake on their island left many in dire poverty.
Conectas is calling for the government to improve conditions at the Brasileia shelter and to find a longer-term solution to the problem.
Esdras Hector, a 29-year-old Haitian who came to Brazil without papers in 2011 and lived in another temporary shelter in Acre, said the conditions were appalling. He works on a dam project in Mato Grosso state, but often visits the area where he first arrived, including Brasileia.
“The local government doesn’t have the facilities to receive Haitian migrants – Acre is one of the poorest states in Brazil. The area where people sleep floods when it rains and it’s hard to understand why they put people in a place with such poor hygiene,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Hector urged Haitians not to enter the country illegally.
“Brazil opened its doors after the 2010 earthquake, but before that we had social, economic and political difficulties (in Haiti). My town, for example, was almost completely destroyed three times by hurricanes. Still, I would like to tell people not to come to Brazil without papers, even if it takes longer at the embassy. The suffering you have to go through along the way isn’t worth it,” he said.
Duval Fernandes, a geography professor at Pontificia Catholic University of Minas Gerais, said immigrants use smugglers to enter Brazil because getting a visa from the Brazilian embassy in Haiti is so difficult.
“They give up to $4,000 to smugglers, paying the debt off after they get a job in Brazil. The demand for a humanitarian visa outstrips the embassy’s capacity,” Fernandes told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Although authorities have speeded up the visa process, this has not eased the overcrowding at the shelter.
“Some Haitians would rather stay in the shelter in terrible conditions but with some food and a place to sleep. They don't speak the language and it is especially difficult for women to find jobs,” added Fernandes.
While there are large construction projects in many parts of Brazil, including dams in the northern region, the demand for workers is not as high as in 2011, he added.
Nilson Mourão, Acre state's secretary for human rights, said he supports federal intervention at the state-run shelter but is not in favour of expanding its capacity. Instead, he wants to see the federal government improve visa processing for Haitians before they come to Brazil.
“It is safer, cheaper and doesn’t encourage them to take the illegal route, which is dominated by smugglers,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
About 10 percent of Haitians live abroad. Between 2010 and July this year, Brazil granted 6,281 visas to Haitians who arrived without permanent residency. An additional 2,586 people were issued a permanent visa at Brazilian consulates in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador, according to Brazil’s Institute of Migrations and Human Rights.
The humanitarian problem stretches beyond Brazil’s borders.
“We know of cases of extortion by Peruvian authorities to let migrants through, which favours the smuggling industry. Brazilian embassies in those countries should issue more humanitarian visas as well,” said Fernandes.
Conectas has requested that the United Nations send independent rapporteurs to monitor the situation and has asked the Organisation of American States to hold a regional meeting.
Brazil has taken some steps to address the problem. Its Foreign Ministry hosted a meeting of officials from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, Peru and Dominican Republic on May 15 to discuss the rise in trafficking and the exploitation of Haitian immigrants.
The government also announced in April it would further expand its permanent visa programme for Haitian nationals. However, the foreign minister did not respond to an inquiry for an update on its progress.
Conectas said that since April the Haitian population in the shelter has exploded as fewer people are leaving.
“The little structure it had is lost and the situation is out of control," said Charleaux.
Some academics are advocating improvements to Brazil’s immigration laws and a focus on integrating immigrants into society, in addition to granting more humanitarian visas.
"Our legislation is from the 1980s, when we had a dictatorship in place and immigrants were seen as a threat to national security. We have an immigration bill pending in Congress since 2009," said Fernandes.
Deisy Ventura, professor of foreign relations at the University of Sao Paulo, added that the Brazilian government should take a broader approach to immigration. “Brazil shouldn't act as a fire-fighter, but instead build integration policies as an architect."