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In a poor Brazilian state, flood of Venezuelans tests limits of compassion

Why We Wrote This

A Brazilian border state’s difficulties welcoming Venezuelans underscore a frequent challenge: communities hosting vulnerable refugees are often among their country’s neediest, too.

Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters
A Venezuelan migrant carries a placard near a makeshift camp at Simón Bolívar Square in Boa Vista, Brazil. It reads: 'Looking for work: carpentry, painting, farming, and general services.' Officials say the state capital’s population has increased by more than 10 percent due to Venezuelan arrivals over the past two years. That’s straining the local economy and affecting local perceptions of security.

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Roraima is one of Brazil’s poorest and least-populated states, a pocket of the Amazon along the Venezuelan border. Today, it’s home to about half a million – plus thousands of Venezuelans fleeing their country’s intensifying crises. Examples abound of locals providing help. But many locals argue the Venezuelans put too much of a strain on their already-neglected state. Earlier this month, Roraima abruptly closed its border, though the decision was overturned soon after, and officials have asked the federal government for $49 million, to reimburse what they’ve spent on refugee support. The state’s dilemma underscores the fear, misinformation, and lack of preparedness that so many cities and states have confronted across the world as migrant populations boom. But the desire to help is there, many locals insist, and a change in perspective could help uncover solutions to problems that predate the refugee influx – like violence against women, among whom refugees are especially vulnerable. The challenge is “to think about solutions together,” says Julia Camargo, a professor at the Federal University of Roraima.

It’s 7:30 a.m. on a recent morning and already the line outside Our Lady of Consolation Convent stretches past the lime-green fence and around the corner. Hundreds of people, mostly men, have come for the bread and juice the nuns offer for breakfast six days a week.

It’s an increasingly common sight in Roraima, one of Brazil’s poorest and least-populated states, which is situated in the Amazon and shares a border with Venezuela. As humanitarian, economic, and political crises have intensified across their country, tens of thousands of Venezuelans have crossed into Brazil seeking medical attention, food, and opportunity.

“Things in Venezuela have changed,” says Jesús Quispe, a former member of Venezuela’s armed forces, as he lines up for the bare-bones breakfast. “In Venezuela, you would go out to ‘kill a little tiger,’ so to speak, in order to eat a plate of food, and it wasn’t enough,” he says, referring to doing small jobs or informal work, like cleaning a neighbor’s gutters. “Here, you ‘kill a little tiger’ and you have enough [money] to send to your family in Venezuela.”

Mr. Quispe arrived in Boa Vista three months ago and has been sleeping on the ground near the city’s bus station ever since. Many sidewalks, bus stops, and storefronts transform at night into stretches of bodies sleeping on collapsed cardboard boxes – a situation that many residents say has prompted their compassion, but also stretched the realistic limits of Roraima, an often-overlooked part of Brazil.

Nacho Doce/Reuters
People from Venezuela eat their meal inside Nossa Senhora Da Consolata church in Boa Vista, Roraima state, Brazil on Aug. 11, 2018. Six days a week, nuns offer a free meal for hundreds of refugees.

Public officials estimate the state capital’s population has increased by more than 10 percent due to Venezuelan arrivals over the past two years. That’s straining the local economy and affecting perceptions of security, many locals say. With the growing pressure on public services, and a feeling that the state has been left to care for refugees entirely on its own, Roraima abruptly closed its border with Venezuela this month. State officials asked the federal government to reimburse it for the $49 million they’ve already spent on refugee support, and pleaded for help creating a more organized humanitarian response.

The border closure was overturned by a Supreme Court justice the same week it went into effect, but the move underscores the feelings of fear, misinformation, and lack of preparedness that have swept cities and towns across the world as migrant populations grow. It could be easy to cast Roraima’s move as protectionist, or cold-hearted. But among residents and government officials in this remote corner of Brazil – where monthly income hovers around $250, nearly half the national average – the desire to help is there. Local nongovernmental organizations and individuals are stepping up to offer housing, food, and Portuguese classes. Some observers say shutting down the border was meant as a very public call for help.

International agreements demand that refugees be taken in and housed with dignity. “But there’s also the right of [locals] not to lose their standard of living,” says five-term mayor Teresa Surita. “It’s a really difficult situation to manage.”

A strain, or scapegoats?

Outside the city’s center, Venezuelans have become regular fixtures at intersections, where they sell candy, bottles of cold water, and homemade popsicles in an effort to scrape by. More than 16,000 Venezuelans arrived in the first half of 2018 alone. Boa Vista is building 50 new classrooms to accommodate Venezuelan students, and roughly 65 percent of emergency room visits last month were from Venezuelan refugees.

While examples abound of individual Brazilians taking Venezuelans into their homes or providing food, resentment has also grown. As refugees seek out medical care, employment, and schools in a state of roughly half-a-million people, some locals see their livelihoods threatened; others see an increase in crime and blame refugees.

On a recent afternoon, the urgent care clinic near the federal university has half a dozen people waiting. Paula Lopes Santos, a Brazilian artisan and physiotherapy student, is one of them.

“A lot of people have lost their jobs because their labor is much cheaper,” she says. “People exploit [the refugees]. You would have to pay a Brazilian 100 Reals, and they take 30. So, this harms [locals].”

But the situation in Venezuela, where child malnutrition is on the rise and even the most basic medical care is scarce, means those arriving here are “in a situation of extreme vulnerability,” says Daniela Campos, coordinator for the state’s epidemiology department. She says Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency is affecting this small state beyond the increasing number of individuals in need, and points to a recent outbreak of measles, which was previously eradicated in Brazil.

Some argue Brazil needs to put “Brazilians first,” instead of attending to Venezuelans. The Boa Vista city government boarded up a square in which some 600 refugees had set up camp earlier this year, in what critics called an effort to push the issue out of sight. The move was criticized by human rights activists, but won popularity among some locals. In an election year, tough responses like this can be appealing, and closing the border this month allowed the governor, who is up for reelection, to look firm on migration.

The government’s inability to respond quickly and adequately to the refugee populations’ basic needs has enabled politicians to scapegoat migrants, says João Carlos Jarochinski Silva, a professor of international relations at the Federal University of Roraima. It’s creating an “exclusionary idea of nationalism,” he says, where local culture is seen as something that needs to be preserved and protected.

Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters
Venezuelan migrants stand between tents in a United Nations-run shelter in Boa Vista, Brazil on May 3, 2018.

Old problems, new perspective

The federal government has yet to offer additional help after the brief border closure. Late last February, however, the government stepped up its efforts after President Michel Temer visited Roraima. Shortly after, the army arrived to build and run refugee shelters in Boa Vista and along the border. Mr. Temer also issued an order earlier this year to “interiorize” Venezuelan arrivals, moving people from Roraima to other state capitals. So far, only 820 refugees have been relocated, leaving Roraima with most of the responsibility.

“We have a large number of organizations that are helping, that is true,” says Frederico Linhares, Roraima state’s cabinet secretary. “But we don’t have any [real] help from the federal government. That’s an issue that concerns everybody here, because this is a federal matter.”

Still, some see this moment as an opportunity for Roraima – and possibly the nation – to give needed attention to longstanding issues that affect locals and newcomers alike. Last year, for example, Human Rights Watch identified Roraima as the Brazilian state with the highest levels of violence against women. Female migrants are often especially susceptible, which is helping to raise awareness about the existing problem, says Julia Camargo, who teaches International Relations at the Federal University of Roraima.

Professor Camargo was one of the organizers of a 2017 campaign called “Elas somos nos” (Those women are us), which aimed to highlight shared experiences of violence between local and refugee women, and create solidarity.

If a woman is also "a migrant, there are overlapping layers of vulnerability,” Camargo says. “If we see this as an opportunity to look at these problems more, to think about solutions together, then, along with the cultural baggage that immigration brings, it can also bring us solutions to problems we already had."

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