Brazil has received 15,000 asylum claims this year, but its national asylum system hasn’t been updated since 1997 when it got 500 applications a year.
Brazil is failing to respond to one of the most serious forced migration crises in decades. The economic and political maelstrom in neighboring Venezuela has forced thousands of people to flee into Brazil in search of food, medicine and basic survival. According to Brazil’s border police, more than 77,000 Venezuelans poured into Brazil between 2015 and 2016. While most are eager to return to Venezuela, many are seeking asylum. There are already 8,231 Venezuelans who have officially claimed asylum in 2017 and another 5,000 others waiting for an appointment. Roughly 150 new claims are being received every single day.
The situation for the new arrivals is dire. They are living on the streets and in improvised shelters. Many people have contracted diseases associated with poor living conditions and rely on overstretched and understaffed hospitals. Human Rights Watch reports that almost 2,000 migrants were diagnosed with malaria in 2016. The number of Venezuelan women seeking maternity care has also sky-rocketed, as have reports of kidnapping, rape and trafficking for sexual exploitation.
The emergency response has been meagre. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has increased its presence at the border and is working with the Brazilian federal government to craft an emergency plan. But in the face of rapidly deteriorating conditions in Venezuela, the contingency plan is dangerously far from being effective. For their part, state and municipal authorities are reticent about getting fully involved. Many officials fear that assistance to migrants is an electoral liability. One mayor went so far as to suggest that Brazil should close its border with Venezuela to avoid new arrivals.
Making matters worse, there appears to be no long-term strategy to anticipate mass migration situations in the future. Instead, refugees are left to fend for themselves with a small clutch of charities and non-governmental organisations providing support where they can. Unless Brazil significantly rethinks and retools its migration and asylum systems to the new reality of increasing human mobility, the country will be in permanent response mode. This is not just a question of morality, ethics and “doing the right thing”. There are stark legal and operational implications of Brazil’s non-action.
While having a long-standing reputation as a “welcoming” country, Brazil has never had a federal institution devoted exclusively to migration. As a result, skills and resources are scattered across different ministries. Astonishingly, the national asylum system has had no structural changes since 1997, a period when Brazil received no more than 500 asylum claims a year. At the moment, there are six case workers assisting a National Committee that gathers only once a month to process more than 15,000 new claims each year. Not surprisingly, there’s a backlog of at least 25,000 asylum cases.
Particularly concerning is the fact that Brazil has no digital system in place to track its migrant and refugee population. No one actually knows how many asylum-seekers and refugees there are in Brazil. There is no centralised information on their nationalities, age or gender, much less their basic needs for protection and support. If Brazil wishes to upgrade its system into the 21st century it needs at the very least a unified data management system. Information should be gathered at entry and exit points, processed at the federal level and then used to drive informed public policies.
Brazil’s restrictive migration law was updated this past month. In spite of a searing political and economic crisis, a handful of enlightened Brazilian policy makers proposed new legislation focused on protecting and preserving migrants’ rights. Sadly, not all is good news. 20 presidential vetoes introduced in the last few weeks have vastly diminished the power of the new law. The much-awaited amnesty for migrants in an irregular situation, a practice adopted by Brazilian administrations since the 1980s, was one of the major drawbacks to the bill. What’s more, it’s become patently clear that the government is not even remotely prepared to implement the new law in terms of procedure and policy.
Brazil must create a new institution to manage migration. This is essential to coordinating the government’s response to refugees. Equally important is the deployment of a semi-permanent presence in key border areas and major urban centres to provide assistance to those who need it most. In a continent-sized country such as Brazil, asylum processing and refugee assistance cannot be restricted to just two or three major cities as is currently the case. States and municipalities must be incentivised to step-up and work in a coordinated manner.
The country also needs to deliver on its commitment to develop a new resettlement programme. Previous initiatives were fully funded by UNHCR and offered comparatively few places when compared to Brazil’s sheer size and potential. In almost 15 years, no more than 800 refugees were resettled in the country. With international funding waning, Brazil has not resettled a single claimant in 10 months. An enlarged programme, targeting particularly vulnerable groups and involving all levels of government, private firms, civil society and international organizations is critical and could serve as a model for Latin America.
At a time of increasing reactionary nationalism, in which border walls and security fences continue to be built to control migration, it is imperative that Brazil updates its approach to forced migration. It needs to match the rhetoric of an open-door policy with real improvements in the institutionalisation, coordination and management of refugee protection and resettlement. The crisis affecting its Venezuelan neighbours provides an opportunity to make the necessary changes and honour its tradition as a defender of the poor and vulnerable.
Maria Beatriz Nogueira and Maiara Folly are researchers at the Igarapé Institute.