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Haitian Diaspora Tests Brazil’s International Solidarity

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 12 2012 (IPS) - Brazil, for decades a source of migrants to the United States and Europe, is now facing its own humanitarian challenge: applying the international solidarity it trumpets to the Haitians who are arriving in the thousands, in search of a better life.

The alarm was triggered by newspaper reports published in the first week of the year about “coyotes” or people smugglers bringing Haitians into the country across the border with Bolivia and Peru, in the Amazon jungle.

The Haitians reportedly pay between 2,500 and 5,000 dollars apiece for a trip that includes a plane ticket to Ecuador, Colombia or Peru and an arduous overland journey to Brazil.

The Haitian diaspora has grown exponentially since the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake that claimed some 300,000 lives and left 2.1 million people homeless in the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

Drawn by the economic boom in Brazil, now the world’s sixth largest economy, and the major infrastructure works in preparation for the 2014 football World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games to be hosted by Rio de Janeiro, some 5,000 Haitians have flocked to this country since the earthquake, according to the Institute of Migration and Human Rights.

“Brazil has become part of the map of the Haitian diaspora,” sociologist Rubem Cesar Fernandes, director of Viva Rio, a Brazilian NGO that has been carrying out social, economic and cultural projects in Haiti since 2004, told IPS.

The traditional destinations of Haitian migrants are Canada, the Dominican Republic, France, the French West Indies, and the United States. And now Brazil has been added to the list, for specific reasons, said Fernandes.

Since 2004, Brazil has headed the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti, and Latin America’s giant has a growing presence in that Caribbean island nation.

“Brazil is now part of the collective consciousness of Haiti,” Fernandes said, referring to newfound “affective ties” between the two nations in areas like music and football, as well as the shared African origins of Haitians and much of the Brazilian population.

Furthermore, the first signals sent out by Brazil to Haitian immigrants were “friendly and welcoming, and non-repressive,” Fernandes said.

“I came in 1992, when we didn’t yet feel the Brazilian presence in Haiti,” said André Yves Cribb, an agronomist from Haiti who works on development aid projects for his home country at Embrapa, the Brazilian government’s agricultural research agency.

“Brazil started to play a more active role on the international stage and the foreign policy front,” he told IPS. “And this country’s growth has drawn the attention of people who are trying to find a way to survive,” he said, adding that there are also subjective factors like the Haitian people’s identification with the Brazilian people.

The Catholic humanitarian organisation Caritas says the majority of the most recent arrivals from Haiti, who came in early 2012, are waiting in the border towns of Tabatinga and Brasiléia, hoping they will be granted humanitarian visas that would allow them to work, since the Brazilian government does not consider them refugees.

“Brazil understands the situation. There has been no mistreatment, and humanitarian and work visas are being issued,” said Cribb.

The problem is that during the waiting period, which can take up to six months, the two small towns do not have the infrastructure or the conditions to receive so many immigrants.

The national bishops’ conference reported, for example, that in Brasiléia, in the northwestern state of Acre, there are now 1,250 Haitians – 10 percent of the population.

As of Dec. 23, 4,015 Haitians had applied for refugee status and the applications are being studied by the National Committee for Refugees.

“The immigrants are sleeping in the town square, or as many as 10 are crammed into rooms for three or four people,” said a local Catholic priest.

“The ‘coyotes’ are clearly exploiting people along these immigration routes,” José Magalhaes, Caritas national adviser for risk and emergency management, who is providing assistance to the immigrants, told IPS.

The governments of the Amazon rainforest states where the immigrants are arriving are unable to meet the rising demand for housing, food and healthcare, he added.

Many of the Haitian women who have arrived are pregnant, he noted. Under Brazilian law, anyone born in Brazil automatically becomes a citizen.

In the first days of the year, the situation was aggravated by the arrival of around 500 new undocumented Haitians.

The latest wave of immigrants prompted the government to take a definite stance and adopt measures, after wavering between granting humanitarian visas and worrying that doing so would open the floodgates to new arrivals.

On Tuesday, Jan. 10 President Dilma Rousseff authorised the regularisation of the situation of all Haitian immigrants who are already in the country.

But at the same time, she announced restrictions aimed at curbing the influx of undocumented Haitians. From now on, visas – a maximum of 100 a month – will only be issued by the Brazilian embassy in Haiti.

“The Brazilian government will not be indifferent to the economic difficulties faced by Haitians. But only people with visas will be allowed to enter Brazil,” said Justice Minister Eduardo Cardozo.

The government will also step up security along the borders with Bolivia and Peru, and will negotiate special measures with those two countries and Ecuador.

“We have to crack down on this illegal immigration and people smuggling route,” the minister said, to explain the measures that have been interpreted by many as a de facto barrier to Haitian immigrants.

Joseph Handerson, a Haitian student with the graduate studies programme in social anthropology at the national museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, questioned the measures.

“The ones who are arriving now are in the same situation as those who had already come and were granted legal status. Why are they being treated differently? Brazil should rethink its position and humanitarian policies,” he said.

Magalhaes took a similar stance, pointing out that Brazilian history was built by immigrants from Europe and from the rest of Latin America, and slaves from Africa.

“We in Caritas clearly see this as a humanitarian situation of the first order, one that calls for international solidarity,” he said.

Magalhaes said “these situations are complex.” But speaking in a personal capacity, he stressed that Brazil “has to have political coherence” and must understand that it has joined the route of the Haitian diaspora because it is now a financial powerhouse and is in need of workers due to the sports events to be hosted in the next few years.

“It should not shut its borders but should help these immigrants stay here,” he said, pointing to the humanitarian tradition of Brazil, which has granted refugee status to 4,359 refugees, 2,813 of whom are from Africa.

Cribb said the arrival of Haitian immigrants, many of whom have already been hired to work on hydroelectric dams under construction in Brazil, is doubly beneficial.

He said that, given the economic boom that Brazil is experiencing as an emerging country, the new immigrants – many of whom are skilled workers or university graduates in areas like engineering – will contribute to the country’s growth while themselves benefiting from their insertion in a dynamic economy.

Handerson explained to IPS that 80 percent of the Haitians who have arrived in Brazil are now living in the city of Manaus, the capital of the northwestern state of Amazonas, 10 percent headed to French Guiana, and the rest are in Brazilian states like São Paulo, Roraima and Minas Gerais.

And of those who are living in Manaus, 80 percent have jobs, mainly as construction workers, painters, carpenters, steelworkers or waiters, in the case of men, and as domestics, cooks or manicurists in the case of women.

But in Tabatinga, in the same state, the conditions are more complicated because there are not enough jobs or housing for the 1,300 Haitians in the town.

According to Handerson’s study, the great majority of Haitian immigrants in Brazil have not completed secondary school, but some have tertiary studies. Nearly all of those living in Manaus speak three languages – French, Creole and Spanish – and they earn around 400 dollars a month on average.

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