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Chasing the 'Brazilian dream,' migrants strain the country's immigration laws

An investigation this month found illegal immigrants from Haiti living in squalor in an overcrowded camp – highlighting Brazil's lack of policies for dealing with a growing issue.

By Janet Tappin CoelhoCorrespondent / August 20, 2013

After making the journey from Port au Prince in Haiti to Brazil, illegal Haitian immigrants are housed in a make-shift shelter in Brasiléia, Acre state, in conditions criticized by a human rights organization, June 1, 2013.

Janet Tappin Coelho

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Rio de Janeiro

As Brazil rushes to prepare for next year's World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, it is facing another unexpected pressure: rising illegal immigration, spurred by the growing perception of the country as a land of opportunity.

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Putting a spotlight on the problem are hundreds of Haitians being trafficked illegally into the country. Since a massive 2010 earthquake upended many of their lives, around 10,000 undocumented Haitians have surged into Brazil, with 4,000 alone arriving in Brasiléia, in Acre State, over the past seven months. Every day, 40 more arrive. 

But Brazil's response has been chaotic. A three-day investigation earlier this month into the conditions at a refugee camp in Brasiléia by Conectas, a São Paulo-based human rights organization, revealed that more than 830 immigrants – mostly Haitians and including some 20 unaccompanied children – are living in a makeshift shelter built for 200 people.

Conditions are unsanitary: The refugees share 10 toilets and eight showers, while 90 percent are suffering from diarrhea and 10 percent from respiratory diseases. Three taps provide drinking water and migrants complain daily about the quality of the food. Every day the local hospital sees around 10 Haitian patients with stomach complaints.

“What we found was unhealthy and inhumane,” says Conectas spokesman João Charleaux. “The site has open running sewage, with the latrine area flooded by fetid water and the Haitians stacked on top of each other at night, sleeping on pieces of foam mats in the middle of bags, shoes, and personal belongings in the scorching heat. Many have spent months in this condition."

Broadly speaking, Brazil appears genuinely willing to admit undocumented people into its borders. But so far, its approach of issuing humanitarian visas to Haitians even if they arrive illegally undermines its stated commitment to combat human trafficking. Critics say that as the country's international profile and prosperity rises, it must ensure that its immigration policies are unequivocal and highly developed.

“Immigration here is being treated as a simple migration problem, which has resulted in an amateurish and uncoordinated approach, overloading the small municipality of Brasiléia and its population,” says Mr. Charleaux. “The situation should in fact be managed by specialists who understand complex humanitarian emergencies."

Brazil's struggle to cope with the influx of migrants is the flip side to an economic boom that has created growth, employment, and stability over the past 10 years, says Eurasia Group Latin America analyst João de Castro Neves.

“In the past, Brazil has been used to exporting its citizens abroad. Now it’s facing a new scenario. With the upcoming World Cup and Olympics creating job demands, Brazil is beginning to be seen as a land of opportunity, just like how the United States became an illegal immigrant magnet when it had a healthy economy,” says Mr. Castro Neves.

“It’s inevitable that Brazil will now start to attract illegal aliens, too. The problem is, Brazil doesn’t have an overarching legal framework or the infrastructure in place to deal with this new phenomenon,” he adds.

Chasing the 'Brazilian dream'

Osanto George, a 19-year-old high school graduate who arrived in Brasiléia last month, is bitterly disappointed that he gave up an internship in information technology in Haiti to chase the “Brazilian dream.”

"The conditions here are not fit for human beings,” Mr. George says.

“We might as well be back in Haiti with the earthquake. It’s the same dirt, the same type of shelter, unhygienic water, and unhealthy food. It hurts me and scares me," he says. "I knew the way here would be hard, because you're dealing with criminals, but to get here in Brazil and to end up in such a place is unbelievable."

Like others, George paid more than $4,000 to a criminal gang known as "coyotes" to smuggle him into Brazil. The path he took was tortuous and risky. Reports of robberies and assaults are rife, as the journey passes through several countries, including the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, and often through the Amazon jungle. 

But George is still likely to be given a humanitarian visa. Even though Brazil – from the beginning of 2012 until April of this year – insisted on capping the number of visas issued to 100 per month for Haitians, the government still held to a policy of not discriminating against undocumented Haitians. Nearly all who entered illegally have obtained permits, with the right to work but no guarantee of a job.

In April, in a bid to simplify the system and to curb illegal immigration, the government lifted the restrictions on visas, announcing that Haitians could apply for permanent residency at the Brazilian embassy in Haiti's capital of Port au Prince.

The strategy is not working, however, as Conectas discovered following its inspection of the camp in Brasiléia. Increasing numbers of Haitians are still using illegal routes to enter Brazil, claiming the process of applying for the visa in Port au Prince is convoluted and slow.

While the government grapples to resolve this situation, illegal immigration in Brazil is nevertheless tiny in comparison with the United States. Brazilian census figures in 2010 put immigration at a minuscule 0.05 percent of the total population of 193.9 million. At the time, the figure for undocumented migrants was given as 600,000. In comparison, the Pew Hispanic Center in 2011 estimated that the number of illegal immigrants in the United States was around 11.5 million.

Even so, as a signatory to the United Nations protocol against the smuggling of migrants, Brazil is obliged to protect the rights of illegal immigrants and to shield them from the abuse of organized criminal gangs.

“Brazil could be held responsible for not providing adequate shelter for those who arrive here," says Pedro Kenne, an attorney for the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) for the State of Acre. "We cannot leave [the Haitians] in a situation as dire as the one they are currently left in.” 

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