Having taken steps to provide legal status and aid for migrants, Brazil has received commendation for its response to the Venezuelan migrant crisis, with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro frequently boasting about his efforts. Operação Acolhida (Operation Welcome), as the Brazilian government’s response is called, has been buoyed by a comparatively small share of migrant flows, and has found success relative to efforts from other regional actors. There are over 260,000 Venezuelan migrants in Brazil, the vast majority of which are concentrated around the Brazilian-Venezuelan border, most notably in the state of Roraima. Brazil has recognized 46,343 refugees from Venezuela–the most out of any other country in Latin America–almost half of which were granted asylum on a single day in December 2019. But the response has been criticized by human rights organizations for its militarized approach, and Roraima’s public services have become strained.
Many human rights organizations and immigrant advocacy groups, including WOLA, have called for a demilitarization of the Brazilian government’s approach, as Operação Acolhida has been coordinated by the military since its inception in 2018. The military’s logistical capacity and ability to respond to crises on the ground is unquestionable, but their presence in humanitarian spaces proves problematic and remains to be addressed by the government. Camila Asano, the Programs Director at São Paulo-based human rights organization Conectas Direitos Humanos, argues that the military lacks “an institutional culture of building with transparency and social participation,” causing a dearth of reporting on human rights abuses and a failure to promote inclusive policies. This is particularly notable in the lack of equity for indigenous Venezuelan migrants, who receive inadequate support despite their increased vulnerability; in fact, WOLA staff viewed and documented discrimination against indigenous peoples from the armed forces while on the ground in Roraima in 2018, and again in 2019. Furthermore, the presence of the military links the concept of migration with national security, thus obscuring the humanitarian nature of the crisis. It’s a task that civilians can perform, and the government’s militarized approach has been detrimental to the integrity of their response.
The influx of migrants has posed many economic and logistical challenges for the border region, with Roraima one of Brazil’s poorest states and geographically isolated from the economic opportunities present in more metropolitan areas of the country. Unemployment and poverty rates have risen alongside the spike in migration, and school enrollment has swelled to over three times larger than previous years. Moreover, Roraima’s already-poor health care system has been put under additional stress by migrants; the state’s capital, Boa Vista, only has one full public hospital (Hospital Geral de Roraima). The large migration flow has only “further exposed already existing infrastructure issues,” notes Vivianne Soares, the National Direction Assistant at the Jesuit Migrant and Refugee Service of Brazil (SJMR). Antonio Denarium, the governor of Roraima, claims that providing social services to Venezuelans has cost the state 10% of its annual budget. The increased pressures on the system have sparked xenophobic backlash, most notably including violent attacks in 2018. More recently, candidates for Mayor in Boa Vista have turned to campaigning with xenophobic language. Coronavirus has only worsened the outlook, with the Hospital Geral de Roraima the only hospital statewide equipped to respond to COVID until a field hospital was built in June. The new hospital, however, is currently not receiving any new patients, and is only a temporary fix that fails to solve lasting challenges. Investments in local infrastructure and integration in Roraima will be important for building opportunities for Venezuelan migrants and solving the systemic failures that have both exacerbated the migrant crisis in the region and promoted conflict within host communities.
In order to help alleviate the burden placed on the border, the Brazilian government utilizes an interiorization program. Run in conjunction with UNHCR, IOM, and local partner organizations, the program relocates Venezuelan migrants and refugees from Roraima to other states in the country, mostly in the South and Southeast. Although many of the first wave of Venezuelan migrants originally wished to remain close to home in Roraima, the opportunities for jobs and reunification with family members and friends have resulted in an increased interest in interiorization. Georgina Bolivar, who works on the ground with migrants at the border for SJMR, says that “it is a hope of most migrants to leave Roraima.” Thus far, 35,567 Venezuelans have been relocated, with 1,024 making the move this June. Considering the several hundred Venezuelans entering the country daily prior to the pandemic, this does not make much of a dent in the numbers still living in Roraima. And after interiorization, the government often fails to continue to provide support and assistance to migrants. Faced with little knowledge about local education and health systems and what their rights are, coupled with a language barrier and colder climate, integration is a challenge for many. “The government does not follow the process of integration of migrants after interiorization, and the cities that receive them often do not have adequate public policies, making it difficult for migrants to access basic rights and services,” reports Letícia Carvalho, Advocacy Advisor at Missão Paz, which supports migrants and refugees in São Paulo. Expanding interiorization and working with local governments and NGOs on the ground to facilitate the process and provide opportunities and education to migrants would ensure a smoother transition from the border to the interior and ease the pressures on Roraima.
Addressing these criticisms is important, as the Venezuelan exodus is likely to surge once again. Political tensions are set to rise with the upcoming Venezuelan parliamentary elections, and approaches to COVID are relaxing, creating an environment primed for increased migratory flows. A demilitarized approach would more effectively and directly respond to the humanitarian nature of the crisis, while investing in Roraima’s local response and appropriately expanding interiorization to accommodate incoming migratory flows would additionally reduce the impact of a resurgence in migration.