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RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 5 2007 (IPS) - As Brazil’s asylum policy reaches its 10th anniversary, local officials and the United Nations are applauding the progress the country has made, having become one of the most generous recipients of refugees in Latin America. But there are still many hurdles standing in the way of integration in society for refugees.
A new report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that 70 percent of refugees and asylum-seekers in Brazil receive appropriate training on "asylum procedures and orientation on their human rights," compared to a regional average of 10 percent.
The "Mexico Plan of Action: The Impact of Regional Solidarity" report was launched Tuesday in Brasilia.
According to the Brazilian Justice Ministry’s National Committee for Refugees (CONARE), of the 3,461 refugees from 70 countries who are registered in Brazil, 80 percent are from African nations like Angola, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and 25 percent are women.
The UNHCR report assesses the implementation from early 2005 to July 2007 of the Mexico Plan of Action to Strengthen International Protection of Refugees in Latin America, signed by 20 countries in the region in 2004. The report notes that Brazil recognised 106 victims of trafficking and 123 victims of gender-related persecution as refugees.
It also states that the Mexico Plan of Action (MPA) "has become a successful tool for strengthening protection mechanisms for refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and others in the region."
Government bodies, in conjunction with civil society, run an extensive network of protection for refugees in Brazil, with 96 partners throughout the country assisting in the reception and integration of resettled refugees, who are free to move around the country as they please.
Most refugees file applications for asylum in large cities. Of the 3,461 filed in Brazil, 1,399 were in Sao Paulo and 1,996 in Rio de Janeiro.
As a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, the Brazilian government is committed to protecting refugees.
The convention and protocol outline international standards for the treatment of refugees to ensure their rights to employment, education, housing, freedom of circulation, access to justice and security.
CONARE, created after Brazil signed the international conventions, is the public agency responsible for processing applications for asylum, determining whether the applicants meet the requisites for refugee status, and issuing refugees the documents that they need to reside and work legally in the country and have full access to public services.
According to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the term "refugee" applies to any 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…or to return to it."
But according to Fernando Ngury, head of the Centre for the Defence of Refugee Human Rights (CEDHUR) and former president of the Association of African Refugees in Brazil (ARAB), the situation of African refugees in Brazil is not as ideal as it has been painted.
The activist pointed out to IPS that many of the African refugees who make it to Brazil are fleeing dictatorships, torture, armed conflicts, massacres, and political, religious and ethnic intolerance.
"Many young people fleeing from these situations reach Brazil by chance," said Ngury, a refugee from Angola.
"Many stow away on ships that they believe are heading to Europe, and end up instead in Brazil. And some of them are thrown overboard at sea," said the activist, who called for improved controls by international agencies of the question of stowaways.
When they reach this country, African refugees in Brazil face discrimination that makes their integration in society difficult, despite the government’s assistance plans, said Ngury.
"First of all, because they are black, second, because they are poor, and third, because they are refugees," he said, adding that society and the business community in Brazil, as well as many public agents like the police, "see refugees as ‘bad guys’ or delinquents who fled their country."
He noted that a majority of refugees from Africa live in favelas (shantytowns) in Brazil’s big cities.
Ngury also criticised the assistance plans offered by the government through partner organisations like the Catholic charity Caritas, which only provide aid "for the first six months, after which the refugees are left to their own devices."
And although refugees in Brazil receive work permits, he wondered "how are people with the stigma of being refugees, and who are black, going to find work? If poor black Brazilians can't find work, how can African refugees do so?"
He urged the government and the UNHCR to create "specific work-related programmes" for refugees as well as higher education courses, rather than just "basic vocational training," because there are refugees "who have ambitions to obtain academic training."
CEDHUR has arranged agreements with three provincial universities for refugees to be accepted as students without the need to take entrance exams.
Conceição reacted indignantly to the comments made by Ngury, who is not recognised by CONARE as a representative of the refugees.
She said the government offers refugees legal documents and "the right to come and go without having to worry about the risk of being deported to their home countries," and pointed out that "after six years they are recognised as permanent residents." But she did acknowledge that there are still big challenges like ensuring "integration in local society in better conditions."
She added, however, that "we have limited financial resources, and refugees suffer from problems similar to those faced by Brazilians in terms of public health and other precarious situations."
Referring to Ngury’s complaint that after six months of assistance, refugees are left on their own, Conceição underlined that the refugee programme "is not a welfare programme."
"We have funding for addressing their initial needs, and after that, they have to get on their own two feet," she said.
"This isn't the United States, which can afford to help refugees study for 10 years," she added. "Brazil offers international protection, and anyone can be admitted to the programme independently of their religion or race – even if they have entered the country illegally – but we cannot give them privileged treatment and assistance."
The UNHCR report on the Mexico Plan of Action says that refugees in Brazil are included in health and education programmes and skills training courses, and that in 2007 alone, 628,000 reals (350,000 dollars) were earmarked for humanitarian and integration assistance for refugees.
According to Conceição, refugees can also be beneficiaries – as demanded by the organisation headed by Ngury – of government assistance programmes like the Bolsa Familia (family grant), which provides a small monthly stipend to millions of poor families.
She also explained that the financial aid offered to refugees in the first few months is greater than the assistance provided by such government programmes.
In addition, she said, refugees are only entitled by law to reception assistance in their first six months in the country. She clarified, as well, that the aid provided by the Bolsa Familia is distributed by local governments.
The official also referred to the situation of immigrants from Colombia, which is in the grip of a four-decade civil war, and is the biggest source of refugees in the Americas, and one of the biggest in the world.
According to U.N. figures, Colombian refugees are under-registered in Brazil. Only 452 are officially recognised, although there are at least 17,000 living in this country, mainly in border areas, and the inflow has increased by 300 percent since 2004.
"We only take into account those who actually apply for asylum; no one can force anyone to seek asylum," said Conceição.
Many of the Colombian immigrants, she added, regularly cross back and forth across the border.
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