Brazil’s Closed-Door Policy
A showdown between Brasília and the rural state of Roraima could seal the country to refugees from Venezuela.
In late August, Brazilian President Michel Temer announced that he would be sending an unspecified number of troops to Brazil’s northernmost state of Roraima in an effort to control escalating violence against Venezuelan refugees there. In response, the local government demanded the transfer of the refugees to other Brazilian states. These moves follow an incident earlier in August when a mob of enraged Brazilians in the Roraima town of Pacaraima attacked Venezuelan refugees with sticks and stones, knocked down their tents, and burned their belongings. The riot began after a local merchant was injured in a robbery and his family blamed a group of Venezuelans for the attack.
Now, with about 3,000 soldiers in the border region, such unrest has put the mostly rural state at the center of a showdown with Brazil’s federal government and placed it in the middle of a very contentious campaign season ahead of the upcoming general election.
In recent years, as the situation in Venezuela has worsened, at least 2.3 million people have fled to escape hunger and political persecution. Many of them—around 52,000 people between January 2017 and March 2018—have sought refuge in neighboring Brazil. And that number is growing all the time, with thousands more arriving each month. By and large, they have found themselves in Roraima, which shares a large part of Brazil’s 1,350-mile border with Venezuela.
In turn, Roraima has seen its population increase by between 5 and 10 percent over the last few years. According to Suely Campos, the state’s governor, immigrant enrollment in local public schools has increased by almost 400 percent in two years, stretching the capacity of these services to the limit. The influx has had a big effect on small cities like Pacaraima, a very poor town of just over 12,000 residents that is now home to between 1,200 and 2,000 refugees—most of whom live on the streets and in tents.
Without homes or opportunities for formal work, many of the Venezuelans in Brazil are left to beg and to look for food in the garbage. Young Venezuelan women with children to support are particularly vulnerable, and some have ended up as sex workers. Other women and men take on jobs such as cleaning car windows at traffic lights, picking up cans in the streets for recycling, or other informal work that earns them well below what they need to survive.
Violence, meanwhile, is a fact of life. According to authorities, conflicts inside and outside shelters are common, as are attacks on refugees. For example, after a fight between Brazilians and Venezuelans in March that left two dead (a Venezuelan and a Brazilian), dozens of residents in the town of Mucajaí forced immigrants out of a shelter they had been living in and then burned their belongings. In Pacaraima, groups of Brazilian vigilantes have taken to hunting down Venezuelans who, out of fear, now avoid going out into the streets at night. Hundreds of Venezuelans have even fled the cities to seek refuge among indigenous communities in more rural areas. Unfortunately, they may have carried with them measles, which could be one factor in a deadly outbreak of the disease in northern Brazil.
Against this background, it is perhaps not surprising that in February this year, the federal government declared a state of emergency in Roraima. At that time, it sent a first wave of soldiers to the region. These officers were tasked less with preventing the entry of new arrivals than with ensuring support for those in need—a job they have carried out with some problems, if ongoing violence and economic desperation among refugees are any indication.
At the same time, the federal and state government also opened enough shelters to hold 4,600 refugees, which was a start but was in no way sufficient to house all of the refugees in the region. Acknowledging as much, the federal government also made available weekly flights to take refugees to other states, such as São Paulo. So far, more than 2,000 refugees have been sent to other Brazilian states, but the federal government’s goal is to transport 400 refugees a week.
Still facing a crisis situation and an angry public, over the last several months, Campos has repeatedly asked Brazil’s Supreme Court to close the border with Venezuela. According to her, the size of the influx makes it impossible to maintain essential public services. Stopping the flow of refugees, she says, would be a way to give the country a chance to figure out how to provide for those already in Brazil and to prepare for new arrivals in the future.
Not everyone in Brazil agrees. According to an opinion poll from Aug. 7, 45 percent of Brazilians are against shutting out refugees, while 30 percent are in favor of closing the borders. Another 25 percent said they had no opinion. However, only 14 percent of interviewees declared that they believe that refugees are a benefit to Brazil, while 43 percent believe they are not.
Among those who support Campos’s request to close borders are at least three indigenous organizations in Roraima, the Society in Defense of the United Indians of Northern Roraima, the Alliance for the Integration and Development of Indigenous Communities of Roraima, and the Association for the Development of the Taurepangs Indigenous Peoples of Roraima, which represent over 13,000 people. Pointing to reports of violence and illegal forest clearing, these organizations claim that the wave of refugees has altered the way of life of the region’s indigenous communities.
On the other side are those who, for humanitarian reasons, oppose closing the border. “People are coming because they are starving in Venezuela,” Wagner Moura, the founder of the nongovernmental organization Fraternidade Sem Fronteiras (Fraternity Without Borders), said in an interview. “I visited families in Caracas,” he told me, “and they were getting thinner—even if they had two or three people working in the family, they only had one meal a day.” For him, cutting them off could make a bad situation worse. “Speaking of closing the border is a great humanitarian absurdity. The Brazilian population does not agree, the vast majority.”
The largest Brazilian research institutes have not conducted their own polls to confirm such sentiments, but at the very least, it is clear that few approve of Campos’s handling of the crisis. According to a survey earlier this month, 62 percent of voters will not back her in upcoming elections. Her approach to the crisis, it seems, has been seen as too weak. The first- and second-place candidates both advocate tougher measures against refugees.
Whatever her eventual fate, for now, Campos is prepared to fight her corner in a showdown with Brasília. In April, her administration filed a civil action against the Brazilian government demanding the closure of the borders with Venezuela or the imposition of quotas for the entry of refugees. Rosa Weber, a member of Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court, proposed holding mediation between the two sides to find a solution to the crisis. In May, the first attempt to negotiate failed—the local government agreed to waive the border closure in exchange for the payment of 184 million reais ($46 million) as reimbursement for the state’s refugee-related expenses. The federal government, insisting that it had already invested large sums of money in the state, refused to pay. A new round of talks was attempted in June, with no success.
Things heated up in August, when Campos issued her own decree demanding the immediate deportation of foreigners caught committing crimes and obliging all foreigners to present a valid passport for access to basic health services. Brazil’s Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Federal Public Defender swiftly filed a lawsuit against the measure with the Supreme Court. Federal Judge Helder Girão Barreto then suspended admission of Venezuelan immigrants to Brazil, and the next day, Weber reversed the move and suspended the decree. Since then, violence against migrants has become even more routine.
With general elections looming in October, the refugee situation in Roraima has now become a campaign issue as well. On the far right, leading presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro has noted his support for the creation of refugee camps in Roraima. In March, he visited the region and declared that Brazil “already has many problems” adding that the United Nations should create refugee camps on the border with Venezuela and take responsibility for managing them. Paulo Sergio de Almeida, a U.N. official in the region, however, stated that the organization would do so only after all other options for sheltering refugees had been exhausted, which was not the case in Roraima.
Meanwhile, in a Sept. 20 debate on the Catholic television network TV Aparecida, Fernando Haddad, the leftist Workers’ Party presidential candidate who currently ranks second in the polls, failed to present a concrete proposal to solve the situation when pressed. Despite the seriousness of the situation, in other words, it doesn’t appear that the election of a new government will resolve matters. But with life in Venezuela showing no signs of improvement, Brazilians—whether they like it or not—will have to find a way to deal with incoming refugees. If they don’t, violence may well continue to increase and the prospect of the full collapse of public services will loom large.