World Cup visitors try to make their Brazil stays permanent – by claiming asylum

Hundreds of Africans who traveled to Brazil on tourist visas during the World Cup have since requested political asylum. Brazil has long been an attractive destination country for immigrants, and is known for requiring little paperwork.

Petr David Josek/AP/File
Ghana soccer fans wave Ghana's national flag in the stands before a World Cup soccer match between Ghana and the United States at the Arena das Dunas in Natal, Brazil, June 16, 2014. Police in southern Brazil said Thursday, July 10, 2014 that hundreds of Ghanaians who entered Brazil as tourists to watch World Cup games have asked for asylum.

Less than a week after the World Cup’s final soccer match, the green, yellow, and blue banners that decorated the streets here for the past month are slowly coming down. But not everyone who arrived during the international tournament is prepared to go home. 

Hundreds of Africans who traveled here on tourist visas during the World Cup have requested political asylum. For many, it was never about seeing a soccer match. Brazil has become a destination country for migrants from around the world due to its lack of strict entry mechanisms and a poorly regulated labor market. As authorities continue to welcome migrants into Brazil’s slowly growing economy – and an increasing number of African, South American, and Caribbean migrants arrive, fleeing religious persecution, violent conflict, or a lack of opportunity back home – some question if the time has come to modify Brazil’s decades-old migration policies.

“We saw this coming,” says Larissa Leite, a lawyer working for the Cáritas Archdiocese of São Paulo, referring to the more than 200 people requesting asylum and citizenship in the wake of the World Cup. “It was the same during World Youth Day last year,” Ms. Leite says.

During the final week of the World Cup, the Ministry of Justice announced that 180 Ghanians had applied for political asylum in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. This week, the federal government announced it would send a task force there to expedite the documentation process, which has overwhelmed local authorities. According the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 8,767 tourist visas were issued to Ghanians during the World Cup, although only 2,529 of these visas were used in Brazil. As of Wednesday, 1,397 of these tourists had already left the country.

Citizens of other nations, such as Nigeria, have requested asylum here as well. 

“They weren’t fans who came for the World Cup. The World Cup just provided them with a path out of their country,” Leite says.

The General World Cup Bill – temporary legislation covering everything from tax breaks on construction to how street vendors could operate passed in the lead-up to the mega event – states that all recipients of tourist visas to Brazil should have already had a ticket to a World Cup match in hand. However, that requirement was not strictly enforced in practice.

“None of us could afford tickets for the games if we wanted to go. We came here looking for better lives and the opportunity to work,” says Enoch Mensah, a Ghanian from the Ashanti region. He has been in Brazil for less than two weeks, living at the São Paulo Municipal Emergency Shelter. 

“I knew that the World Cup was my chance to get the tourist visa.... That is the only reason I came now,” Mr. Mensah says. The current economic situation in the country has led many Ghanians to emigrate in search of better employment opportunities.

'My chance'

Brazil has long been an attractive destination country for immigrants from South America, and more recently from the Caribbean and Africa. The number of immigrants in Brazil nearly doubled between the years 2000 and 2010, when it reached 268,201. Immigration from the African continent alone increased thirty-fold, going from 1,054 legally documented African citizens in Brazil in 2000 up to 31,866 in 2012. Between the years 2012 and 2013, the Haitian population in Brazil tripled.

There’s no single reason migrants choose Brazil, says Rosita Milesi, director of the Institute for Migration and Human Rights. The economic growth that marked the last decade in Brazil made the country an attractive alternative for migrants facing stringent entry requirements in Europe and the United States. Even as the Brazilian economy cools and productivity drops, unemployment remains at a mere 4.9 percent. Earlier this year, authorities announced they would further reduce the bureaucracy that hindered the immigration process, reducing the required paperwork and extending the amount of time that those seeking asylum can stay – and work – in the country from six months to one year.

There's also a perception that with Brazil hosting mega events like the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, work opportunities here are ample.

For Nigerian William Nzedigwe Nwasa, coming to Brazil wasn't about economic opportunities. He saw it as a rare chance to flee his country's terrorist group, Boko Haram, which has killed more than 2,000 civilians this year and targeted his community.

“My father was killed in a tribal dispute,” says Mr. Nwasa. “When he died, I moved from our village to Nyanya. It wasn’t long after I arrived that Boko Haram bombed a market there, killing several people.”

Nwasa came to Brazil June 20 on a tourist visa, which cost roughly $100. “I knew it was my chance,” Nwasa says.

Struggling to keep up

Migration into Brazil, however, has not come without complications. The number of political asylum applications received in Brazil has increased by roughly 10 times between the years 2011 and 2013. This has led to increased incidents of racism, and tension between federal policy and local authorities, who have argued that their communities are unable to process, shelter, and absorb large numbers of refugees. 

Earlier this year, the governor of the rural state of Acre shut down a major refugee shelter along the Peruvian border, claiming that the state had become an “international route for illegal immigration.” But even big cities like São Paulo are struggling to keep up with the influx. In January, for example, one of every three immigrants living in São Paulo had not yet been documented, according to the municipal secretary of human rights. 

“Compared to the size of our population and country, the number of immigrants arriving now is relatively small,” says Camila Asano, the Coordinator of Foreign Policy at Conectas, a human rights organization in São Paulo. “But there is certainly concern that the situation could get more serious in coming years, particularly if we don’t update our policies that handle their arrival and distribution," Ms. Asano says.

"We have a stable economy and employment opportunities. There is no reason for it to be a catastrophe.”

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