Brazil Opinion

REFUGEE CRISIS FROM A BRAZILIAN PERSPECTIVE

Refugees are seen as burdens by European governments. But for Brazilians, born into a country of miscegenation, someone’s origin is not an issue

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Refugee crisis
Photo: Manu Gomez/Fotomovimiento

“Wow, you’re Brazilian! Brazilians are so cool, so nice, so generous! I’ve never met people so open as Brazilians.” I have heard this response many times after introducing myself abroad. And I’ve heard this in places as different as Kenya, France and Lebanon – and from people ranging from students and diplomats to janitors, from the young to the old, from men to women.

Even if this is a generalization, living outside of Brazil indeed makes one see things in your own country from different perspectives. Especially in a moment such as this when the headlines in Europe are focused on the migration crisis.

Brazil is a melting pot not only because of its origins as a Portuguese colony, its indigenous people, and the African slaves who were brought to the country for centuries. Historically, Brazil has also had a remarkable record on hosting people from all over the world, like the Italian, Japanese and Lebanese migrants who disembarked in São Paulo at the beginning of the 20th century, looking for a place to build a new life.

The result? Together with the United States, Canada and Argentina, Brazil has received one of the largest numbers of immigrants in the Western Hemisphere. Statistics from the first census done in 1982 until another completed in the year 2000 show that Brazil has received at least 6 million immigrants.

The number of refugees currently recognized in the country is around 7,700. Still a small number when compared to countries like Pakistan, who is hosting 1.8 million refugees, but it has been growing exponentially due to the “humanitarian visas” granted to Syrians escaping from the war. Limited housing and public services, as well as restricted access to documents and jobs, are also big challenges facing refugees and migrants in Brazil to integrate, especially in the midst of an economic crisis. Nevertheless, last year, the Brazilian government authorized the permanent residency of more than 40,000 Haitians and, this year, of nearly another 10,000 African migrants.

In practical terms this means that nowadays in Brazil, everybody has a mixed origin. Last names can look German or Syrian, and us Brazilians have never paid much attention to this. But when hosting migrants and refugees seems to be the nightmare of the century for Europe, one can cherish the solidarity with foreigners in places like Brazil.

It is alarming that refugees and migrants became a “crisis” for Europe when Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey —the countries neighboring Syria— are hosting more than 4.8 million refugees. And in Syria itself, there are currently more than 7.6 million people displaced from their homes by the conflict that is in its fifth year. The solutions that Europe is creating to deal with the influx of migrants are alarming because they are primarily geared towards security. The economics of migration and the human potential of migration are being dramatically undervalued.

Last September, the EU agreed to resettle 160,000 refugees disembarking in Italy and Greece over a period of two years. Enormous debates between countries took place about which “measure, quota or burden” of refugees it would take in. The relocation scheme, though, ultimately didn’t work out and in January only 272 asylum-seekers had been relocated, according to the EU Migration Commission. To make it worse, Macedonia and other countries in the Balkans have decided to close their borders, leaving thousands of refugees stranded in Greece.

This week, European Union representatives met in Brussels to look for solutions, and Turkey proposed to accept all the “irregular migrants”. For “each Syrian brought back, another would be resettled in Europe.” Two important issues to consider: it’s hard to believe that this could work, and forcibly displacing people is against international law. And a bigger issue: migrants and refugees don’t want to stay in Greece or Turkey, so they would probably look for alternative routes to Europe.

Furthermore, Turkey is basing its proposal on “humanitarian purposes” when in January the international medical organization MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) denounced in a report that the European Union’s policies worsened the crisis. “Not only did the European Union and European governments collectively fail to address the crisis, but their focus on policies of deterrence along with their chaotic response to the humanitarian needs of those who flee actively worsened the conditions of thousands of vulnerable men, women and children,” said Brice de le Vingne, Director of Operations for MSF.

Last week during a conference in Geneva, representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also stressed that the lack of cooperation between European countries was propelling the migration crisis. For them, the future involves strong political leadership committed towards protecting refugees and migrants (Angela Merkel’s open position to accepting refugees in Germany has been quoted as a model for Europe), and creating a dialogue for reaching practical and pragmatic solutions preserved in legal mechanisms like the Refugee Convention.

What should be done is a big question, and a big part of the answer lies in rethinking how to host and protect people. And this is a question that doesn’t only concern Europe, as in 2015 the world reached a record number of 60 million displaced people. It means globally that 1 out of every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. Migrants comprise 244 million people, or 3.3% of the world’s population living outside their country of origin, according to the United Nations. Historically, countries neighboring sites of war and disaster, like Iran and Kenya, have hosted more refugees than any others. They are mostly in under-developed countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, according to UNHCR.

Brazil and Latin America are responding with creativity and by strengthening their hosting traditions to foreigners. Actions vary from pilot projects to promote employment schemes in Brazil for Colombian refugees, to student visas for Syrians in Mexico and bold regional agreements, like the roadmap adopted in Brasilia in 2014 by Latin American and Caribbean countries to address new displacement trends and end statelessness within the next decade. Meanwhile in the north, Canada is investing on remarkable new resettlement programs financed by private organizations and individuals.

“We need to put men back in the center of the problem. It is the only solution. Today refugees and migrants are foreigners, numbers,” a North African migrant told me during a phone call. He has been detained for three months in a Center of Identification and Expulsion (CIE, in Italian) in Sicily— a type of center that local NGOs are asking to be closed down because of their precarious conditions, and where migrants and asylum-seekers detained straight after arriving in Italy.

When opportunity is given instead of limitations, people adapt and flourish, like a migrant teenager from Gambia who I interviewed in Sicily. He traveled to Europe alone crossing the sea in a boat that almost drowned, after having been arrested for four months in Libya. Thanks to an Italian family who hosted him, he learned Italian, had his documents and could join soccer training in a local club. His biggest dream: to become a professional football player. “You’re Brazilian! Great! So you also love football, you can understand me,” the boy told me.