Brazil Feels the Effects of the Humanitarian Crisis in Venezuela

Venezuelans are crossing into the northern Brazilian state of Roraima by the tens of thousands, fleeing an intensifying humanitarian crisis. Although most leave after only a brief stay,  over 12,000 Venezuelans have chosen not to return since 2014. Some are driven by a fear of violence or political persecution, others by economic motives. As a result, there are two distinct groups of Venezuelan immigrants in Brazil today: those seeking immediate, temporary relief; and those intending to settle more permanently.

In the midst of Brazil’s worst ever recession, with leadership in Brasilia mired in corruption scandals, border states are struggling to meet the needs of their own residents while providing for recent arrivals. Brazil’s official welcoming position masks a grimmer truth: insufficient resources and a lack of political will to implement a lasting solution.

Many Venezuelans arrive in Brazil seeking healthcare. In 2016, the General Hospital of Roraima in Boa Vista treated 1,240 Venezuelans, up from 324 in 2014. Many are suffering from conditions left untreated due to the scarcity of medicine and services in Venezuela. Common conditions include tuberculosis, pneumonia, HIV/AIDS, and malaria. Similarly, expectant mothers are increasingly seeking care in towns near the Brazil-Venezuela border. In the border town of Pacaraima, Venezuelans account for approximately 80 percent of patients, and over half of all prenatal patients. The same trend is visible at Roraima’s maternity hospital.

In Brazil, Venezuelans receive free treatment from a public healthcare system significantly better than Venezuela’s own. Yet, even before the influx of Venezuelans, the public healthcare system in Roraima was grappling with insufficient rooms and beds. As a result, many Brazilian hospitals, already struggling to meet the needs of their Brazilian patients, face shortages in medicines and supplies.

Last December, Suely Campos, the governor of Roraima, declared a health-related state of emergency for Pacaraima and Boa Vista (the state’s capital city) and appealed for federal aid. Three months later, the state had still not received the requested aid, prompting a federal senator from Roraima, Ângela Portela, to argue that her state did not have the capacity to deal with the crisis on its own. Without a more effective response from the federal government, this lack of resources has the capacity to create tensions over resource allocation between local (and largely low-income) Brazilians and the newly arrived Venezuelans.

Brazilian authorities have also struggled to address the increase in Venezuelans looking to permanently settle in Brazil. From 1997 to 2017, the annual number of asylum applications in Brazil increased by 29,000 percent. However, the asylum system has not adjusted to cope with the change.

International observers once called Brazil the “El Dorado” for international migrants due to its welcoming policies and an abundance of low-level jobs. Today they criticize Brazil’s inadequate “institutionalization, coordination and management of refugee protection and resettlement.” Legally migrating to Brazil is extremely difficult due to Brazil’s strict immigration laws. Many Venezuelans therefore apply for asylum, though many do not meet the Brazilian or international criteria for protection as refugees.* Since 2012, more Venezuelan asylum applications have been denied than approved. Applicants are, however, undeterred because requests usually take two years to process and during this period, asylum-seekers may stay in the county, send their children to school, and even obtain work permits.

This has led to growing administrative chaos. Over 4,000 Venezuelans are on waiting lists simply to file asylum requests. In 2016 over 445 Venezuelans were deported, up 824 percent from 2015. Brazil was consequently criticized by the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission for Human Rights for placing Venezuelans in jeopardy.

Among these migrants, women are particularly vulnerable. Many have resorted to sex work for the first time or become victims of sexual trafficking, rape, and kidnapping. While some may recognize this vulnerability, it is easy for Brazilians in border States to see something different: Venezuelans coming to take their food jobs and resources, and bringing crime in their wake. There have yet to be significant clashes between Brazilians and Venezuelans but this could change as more Venezuelans are driven across the border. 

Though the situation for Venezuelan migrants remains delicate, there have been some promising developments. On March 2, 2017, Brazil’s National Council of Migration issued a temporary measure allowing would be immigrants to receive a two-year residency permit. Brazil’s federal refugee agency (CONARE) is working to regulate the implementation of this new law, while the Ministry of Justice is considering how to make residency permits more affordable for Venezuelans.  Meanwhile, a Federal Court in Roraima suspended the R$ 311.22 application fees for two-year residency permits that had been prohibitively expensive for many of the Venezuelan immigrants.

In July 2017, the federal government announced it would be allocating R$480,000 ($153,600) to a shelter in Boa Vista. While visiting another shelter in Manaus, the Minister of Justice and Public Security, Torquato Jardim (who recently spoke at the Brazil Institute), guaranteed that Venezuelan migrants would have all necessary humanitarian support from the Brazilian government. However, he stressed that any aid would be temporary. Yet this only raises more questions: if Venezuelans are classified as temporary economic migrants, will they be required to go back after two years? Will easier access to temporary residency encourage more migration into Brazil?

Brazil has yet to adequately address its own existing economic crisis and lacks the infrastructure to properly care for the Venezuelans entering the country. Even if the government does deploy significant funds and resources to improve this crisis, it risks raising local resentment by spending scare resources on foreigners.  In border States where the government sometimes lacks the money to pay its own employees and where local services are underfunded and stretched to the limit, what tensions will be generated if federal funds are directed toward refugees rather than local needs? By focusing on temporary measures, the Brazilian government is signaling that it hopes the crisis in Venezuela will resolve itself before long-terms solutions are required. But there is no sign that the situation in Venezuela will improve in the near term. The problems of Caracas will therefore continue to cause headaches in Brasilia.

Marina Wilbraham interned with the Brazil Institute in the summer of 2017. She is currently in her third year of a dual B.A. at Columbia University and Sciences Po Paris.

*Note: Brazilian law draws its definition of “refugee” from the Refugee Convention of 1951, according to which a refugee is a person who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” However, the Brazilian definition also includes those fleeing “grave and generalized human rights violations.”