Video from Brazilian journalist Shirley Rodrigues calling for solidarity with Venezuelan migrants and refugees.

In July of this year, WOLA traveled with several other human rights groups to Roraima state in Brazil to observe the situation of Venezuelan migrants and refugees. Conectas Human Rights has been advocating for the rights of migrants and refugees and working to combat rising xenophobia. Their work has been a model of 21st Century human rights advocacy that no longer just writes reports or publishes denunciations, but works  through traditional media and social media to impact public opinion in ways that are conducive to the guarantee of human rights. WOLA’s Ayleen Ruvalcaba Villa recently spoke Conectas Program Coordinator Camila Asano.

Ayleen: Tell us a little bit about what the situation was like when Conectas started to work on the Venezuelan migration / refugee issue in Roraima state?

Camila: The first time Conectas organized a mission to Roraima was August 2017. This was when the numbers of Venezuelans crossing the border was just starting to increase. The state of Roraima is a bordering state in northern Brazil, very poor state and with many social problems. The flood of Venezuelans arriving was received by local authorities and residents in a very problematic way in the beginning. The first group of Venezuelans to arrive were the indigenous groups at the end of 2016. At that time there was not an adequate response from the authorities to the situation. People were living on the streets by the bus station in the square which is where they arrived on the bus. There was only one public shelter that was very poor and with very bad conditions for the indigenous migrants. The city was already feeling the impact. Boa Vista is not that big but since it’s a very small city and very isolated state, people were staying in Roraima–unlike in Colombia were they were crossing the border to continue on to other places.

But during 2017 there was a significant increase in the numbers of Venezuelans arriving. When I went for the first time in August 2017, there was already a number of Venezuelans living in Boa Vista, which is the capital of Roraima, and also Pacariama, another border city. There had already been a half a year of intense migration flow, but the federal government had not gotten involved at all. The situation was really problematic because only the local and state governments were dealing with a situation they had little experience in dealing with. Migration had never been an issue in Roraima. At that time there was literally a fight between the local city hall and the state government for who would be in charge of these migrants. They really were not taking responsibility at all. The situation was chaotic because you had a very poor response from the public authorities and the federal government, which should have been there from the beginning. They only started addressing the situation in the first semester of 2018. So part of Conectas call to the government was to get the federal government involved in providing assistance, providing documentation, providing shelters. But, that would only happen six months later.

Ayleen: How did you approach the problem?

Camila: We saw there was a real dispute within public opinion. There were many local residents involved in solidarity actions, arguing that we should welcome and receive these migrants. But there was a growing shift in opinion towards xenophobic rhetoric. What we saw was that we had to try to confront that through public opinion.

We decided to talk to the people in Roraima to see who were the key influencers. I was introduced to Shirley Rodrigues who is a journalist from the most important local newspaper, Folha de Boa Vista. She’s a society columnist who writes about social events in the city. She’s also a digital influencer with about 60,000 followers on Instagram. I introduced Conectas and the work that we do with migrants and she was super open to helping. I asked her if it would be possible to put all the positive things she was already saying about migrants in a video, and she accepted. In the end, she recorded it and it’s an amazing video that was a huge success (see above). Her message was able to reach many people in the region and influence other journalists working on the topic, explaining why Roraima should be opening their doors and arms to receive these migrants. The idea was that if migrants were here it’s because they have no other options; they’re fleeing from hunger and violence.

While in Roraima, I also heard there was a very disrespectful song going around about Venezuelan women who were working in prostitution. In the beginning it was quite common to have Venezuelan women working the streets. They were called ochentas, “eighties” because they were charging eighty Brazilian reales for their service. There was a local band that put out a song, “Ochentas” kind of making fun of them. I discussed the power of popular songs in feeding xenophobia with Shirley Rodrigues and she introduced me to Neuber Uchôa who was the most famous local musician and a good childhood friend of hers. She introduced me to him and he agreed to compose a song about the need to receive and host these migrants with open arms. He made a beautiful song with a youth band called, “Somos Todos Hermanos.” In the end, it became a very popular song.

Another strategy of Conectas was to work with the local press. We monitored articles written about Venezuelans and they were almost always focused on crimes and aspects that could provoke xenophobia in the population. We decided to start a dialogue between journalists and editors, and I went to Roraima again and organized a workshop called, “The Role of Local Press in the Fight Against Xenophobia and Discrimination.” It was amazing because we had discussions with journalists on how terms that they were using, such as ‘illegal immigrants’ were helping foster xenophobia. In the end, the journalists became good allies. Of course, we still have problematic coverage, but now I can talk to them when they’re stressing one negative aspect too much and not focusing on the positives.

Ayleen: What kind of changes did you see after these campaigns?

Camila: The changes are difficult to measure. What we saw was that many of the followers of the influencers were supporting the migrants. Shirley’s video is still circulating and Neuber Uchôa’s song was a hit. I think it was good to highlight the population in Roraima that was open to migrants. At the time, the rest of the country was saying that Roraima was not open to migrants and was treating them badly. But we tried to show that despite xenophobic voices, we had more people who were trying to stand in solidarity with migrants. I felt that it was a way to value the people who were really engaged or supporting the defense of migrant’s rights.

Ayleen: What is the situation now in Roraima and what are your next strategic actions?

Camila: After the federal government got involved things got better or at least more organized. The number of people living on the streets decreased because now you have more than 10 public shelters. Also, the federal government started “interiorization,” basically a voluntary relocation program. So, what the federal government did was use the airplanes from the Brazilian Air Force to distribute migrants to different states.

There’s still a high number of Venezuelans crossing the border. We have around 170,000 Venezuelans living in Brazil, now, which is a very low number compared to the numbers in Colombia and Peru. But, the problem is that the numbers are mainly concentrated in Roraima. So what Conectas is doing, is pushing and monitoring the federal government to continue their response to the situation and also stressing the areas that should be reinforced, like local integration in Roraima. As well we are pushing them to create opportunities for migrants to be able to really integrate into other parts of the country to be able to become part of society and become independent. We’re also pushing the federal government to keep the border open. There was an attempt by the governor of Roraima to ask the Supreme Court to close the border. We are looking at this case and also working in a different range of areas. For example, we have a high number of Venezuelans who are waiting for the decision on the Brazilian Committee on Refugees to decide on their requests. So basically they are asylum seekers who are waiting for the committees decision on whether or  not to provide them with refugee protections.

*Ayleen Ruvalcaba Villa is the Fall 2019 Venezuela and Nicaragua intern for WOLA. She is a senior at George Washington University studying International Affairs.