Published On: July 12, 2018

Venezuelans Flee to Brazil

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Boa Vista

In Pacaraima, Brazil, on the border with Venezuela, hundreds of refugees turn up each day, many arriving penniless and hungry as they pass a tattered flag that signals they have reached the border with Brazil.

These are Venezuelans fleeing their country. The current crisis there has left tens of thousands without food and basic services. Additionally, runaway inflation has crippled the currency and the crisis is so severe that diseases like polio that were previously eradicated in Venezuela have begun appearing again.

The border between Brazil and Venezuela is open once the migrants have presented their identity documents, and so they cram into public parks and plazas in Pacaraima teeming with makeshift homeless shelters. The lucky ones sleep in tents and line up for meals provided by Brazilian soldiers. Pregnant women, the disabled, and families with young children are given priority.


In March, the governor of the state of Roraima, where Pacaraima is located, sued the federal government, demanding that it close the border with Venezuela and provide additional money for the state’s overburdened education and health systems. “We’re very fearful this may lead to an economic and social destabilization in our state,” said the governor, Suely Campos. “I’m looking after the needs of Venezuelans to the detriment of Brazilians.”

The tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have found refuge in Brazil in recent years are walking proof of a worsening humanitarian crisis. They also constitute an exodus that is straining the region’s largely generous and permissive immigration policies. Earlier this month, Trinidad deported more than 80 Venezuelan asylum seekers. In Colombian and Brazilian border communities, local residents have attacked Venezuelans in camps.

Throughout this year, 5000 Venezuelans have been leaving their homeland each day, according to the United Nations. If the current rate remains steady, more than 1.8 million Venezuelans could leave by the end of this year, joining the estimated 1.5 million who have already fled the economic crisis to rebuild their lives abroad.

Pacaraima, Brazil

Border at Pacaraima, Brazil

As Venezuelans began resettling across Latin America in large numbers in 2015; for the most part, they found open borders and paths to legal residency in neighboring countries. But as their numbers have swelled — and as a larger share of recent migrants arrive without savings and in need of medical care — some officials in the region have begun to question the wisdom of open borders.

Governor Suely Campos said she took the “extreme measure” of suing her federal government because the influx of Venezuelans led to a spike in crime, drove down wages for menial jobs, and set off an outbreak of measles, which had been eradicated in Brazil. Law enforcement officials say drug trafficking in the region has increased as destitute Venezuelans have been drafted into Brazilian smuggling networks.

The population of Boa Vista, the state capital, which is 130 miles from the border, has ballooned over the past few years as some 50,000 Venezuelans have resettled there. The migrants now make up roughly 10 percent of the population of Boa Vista. At first, residents responded with generosity, establishing soup kitchens and organizing clothing drives. Today, however, local residents in Pacaraima and Boa Vista are feeling overwhelmed. “Boa Vista was transformed,” said Mayor Teresa Surita. “This has started generating tremendous instability.”


Ana García, a Venezuelan, age 56, said she could scarcely believe her new reality in Brazil. She was a homeowner who ate well and lived comfortably on a social worker’s salary in the Venezuelan city of Maturín. But as her paycheck became worthless last year because of soaring inflation, she quit her job of more than a decade, hoping to get a pension payment large enough to go abroad.

Instead, she walked away with an amount that was so little it only enabled her to buy a small bag of rice, half a chicken, and a banana. As food became increasingly scarce, Ana set out on a nearly 1500 km journey with her 18-year-old daughter, hitchhiking most of the way.

The first night she slept in the plaza in Pacaraima, Ana said, she broke down in tears before crawling under a black tarp she now shares with her daughter. “I never thought we could find ourselves in this situation. We’re not used to living like indigents,” Ana said, her eyes filling with tears. “But Venezuela is destroyed. People are dying of hunger there.”



As public spaces in Pacaraima became increasingly clogged with Venezuelans, the Brazilian government in February took the unprecedented step of tasking the military with assuming control of the response to the refugee crisis. “There is no historical parallel for this,” Col. Evandro Kupchinski, the spokesman of the task force, said as military personnel cleaned up a stadium that had been taken over by Venezuelans, preparing to turn it into an official shelter. “We’re coming up with solutions as we go.”

In collaboration with the United Nations, the Brazilian Army has been building temporary shelters with spacious white tents across the city. By the end of May, it hopes to have 11 shelters with a capacity for some 5,500 people. Venezuelans who have been vaccinated and registered at one of the shelters may apply to be resettled in larger cities in Brazil via a military flight. However, that process is off to a slow start because of funding constraints. The United Nations recently asked international donors to pitch in U$46 million to address the crisis during the remainder of this year, but so far it has only secured 6 percent of that goal.

At the General Hospital of Roraima in Boa Vista, the director, Samir Xuad, says the daily patient population has surged from 400 per day to 1000. Medical supplies as basic as syringes and gloves have run out, he said, and during particularly busy periods, patient gurneys line up in the hallways. “We try to make magic,” he said, “but it’s difficult.”

A mather and her child from the indigenous Warao people from the Orinoco Delta in eastern Venezuela, are seen near a viaduct next to a bus terminal in Manaus, Brazil, May 10, 2017. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

A mother and child from the indigenous Warao people in eastern Venezuela seek refuge in Manaus, Brazil.    Credit: REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

Outside of work, Samir said, residents of Boa Vista have become fearful of crime and wary of the mobs of aggressive window washers who approach drivers at stop lights. “Boa Vista was a place where you could sleep with your door open at night,” he said. “That is no longer the case.”

Throngs of Venezuelan prostitutes now work the streets of a residential area that has become an ever-expanding red light district. Among them is Camilla Suárez, 23, who worked at a waxing salon in Caracas, Venezuela, until a few months ago. As food grew scarce, Camilla, who has a baby, figured that she stood a better chance of providing for her child and her parents by working in Brazil. “I knew Brazilian women liked getting waxed,” she said.

However, as she walked around Boa Vista looking for work, doors slammed in her face everywhere she went. Soon, sex work became a last resort to stay afloat financially and manage, every once in a while, to send some money home to her parents. “There are lawyers and nurses here among us desperate Venezuelans,” Camilla said.



[This article appeared in a slightly different form in The New York Times.]




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