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Brazil's Evolving Relationship With Refugees

Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan, November 2012. Photo from UNHCR on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan, November 2012. Photo from UNHCR on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Despite the sparse knowledge of the Brazilian population on the issue of refugees, the question of war is always present. It will astonish no one to say that we live in an era of generalised conflict around the world. In contrast to the two Great Wars of the last century, in which blocs of countries confronted each other generating mass displacements of populations, today we see numerous conflicts scattered all over the globe.

But to what extent can conflicts in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East affect societies to whom these problems are distant and alien? The answer to this question can be found with refugees and immigrants, who end up the responsibility of nations other than those from where they originated.

Fleeing war and poverty  

Refugee and immigrant: two terms which are generally confused. The difference between them is basically juridical. For refugee, we quote here the definition used by Brazil's National Committee for Refugees (CONARE) [pt], linked to the Ministry of Justice in Brazil:

Será reconhecido como refugiado todo indivíduo que:
I – devido a fundados temores de perseguição por motivos de raça, religião, nacionalidade, grupo social ou opiniões políticas encontre-se fora de seu país de nacionalidade e não possa ou não queira acolher-se à proteção de tal país;
II – não tendo nacionalidade e estando fora do país onde antes teve sua residência habitual, não possa ou não queira regressar a ele, em função das circunstâncias descritas no inciso anterior;
III – devido a grave e generalizada violação de direitos humanos, é obrigado a deixar seu país de nacionalidade para buscar refúgio em outro país.

A refugee is a person who:
I – finds themselves outside of their country of nationality as a result of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a social group and who cannot or does not wish to seek protection from that country;
II – is without nationality and is outside of their country of previous habitual residence, and cannot or does not wish to return to this country as a result of the circumstances described in the previous section;
III – as a result of serious and widespread human rights violations, is forced to leave their country of nationality to seek refuge in another country.

"Um refugiado sem esperança é demasiado". Imagem de divulgação do Dia Mundial dos Refugiados (20 de junho de 2011). Foto das Nações Unidas - Arménia noFlickr (CC BY 2.0)

“One refugee without hope is too many”. Campaign image from World Refugee Day (20 June 2011). Photo from the United Nations – Armenia on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The blog Citizenship and Professionality [pt] gives an idea of how citizens, in this case Portuguese, understand immigration and emigration, explained here by readers Helder Monteiro and Helder Ribeiro:

A emigração é o acto e o fenómeno espontâneo de deixar o seu local de residência para um país estrangeiro.
A imigração é o movimento de entrada, permanente ou temporário e com a intenção de trabalho e/ou residência, de pessoas ou populações, de um país para outro. A imigração em geral ocorre por iniciativa pessoal, pela busca de melhores condições financeiras.

Emigration is the spontaneous act and phenomenon of leaving one's place of residence for a foreign country.
Immigration is the inward movement of people or populations from one country to another, permanently or temporarily, with the intention of working or residing. Immigration generally occurs by individual initiative, as a result of a search for better economic conditions.

In the case of Brazil, as in other countries, it is the Constitution [pt] which defines the legal status of foreigners who become Brazilian. Chapter III “On Nationality” clearly defines who has the right to naturalisation: “Foreigners of any nationality, resident in the Federal Republic of Brazil for more than 15 consecutive years and without criminal convictions, on the condition that they request Brazilian nationality”.

Therefore, superficially speaking, whereas refugees are forced to leave their countries as a result of conflict and persecution, emigrants leave voluntarily in search of more favourable working conditions to support their families. Examining the issue in more depth, the juridical question presents itself in the following manner: refugees have their status determined initially by the United Nations, whose asylum request is then judged by the receiving country; yet immigrants are subject solely to the laws of the country which receives them, without external interference.

Refugees in Brazil: number and profile

Flight, Milan Dusek. Art and Refuge in Brazil: a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Fridtjof Nansen. Image shared by UNHCR on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Flight, Milan Dusek. Art and Refuge in Brazil: a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Fridtjof Nansen. Image shared by UNHCR on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, at the end of 2012 there were around 15.4 million refugees in the world. Of this number, Brazil was providing refuge to around 4,656 at the end of 2013 [pt]. This number is alarmingly small in comparison with the country which takes in the highest number of refugees, Pakistan, with around 1.6 million people.

However, although the numbers themselves are still small, proportionally speaking the number of refugees practically tripled from 2012 to 2013, from 199 authorisations to 649, according to an article re-published on the blog ‘Lajes do Cabugi’ [pt].

This is the result of external pressure placed on Brazil by NGOs, and even other countries, which demand that the discourse portraying the country as a third-world nation – with insurmountable internal problems to worry about – should be abandoned. For this reason and others, a national debate on making the laws governing this issue more flexible arose last year. In the same vein, since the number of people displaced by conflicts around the world has practically doubled since 1990, the country has assumed more external responsibilities and has consequently received more refugees.

The most striking example is that of Syrians who seek asylum in Brazil. Given the bloody civil war in Syria, the Brazilian government recently announced a plan to grant special “humanitarian visas” for Syrian nationals who seek refuge in Brazil – the first initiative of its kind in Latin America – which will be more quickly delivered than the usual waiting time for this kind of document. Moreover, the humanitarian visas can be extended to relatives of the refugee who are living in countries that neighbour Syria.

The blog “O Estrangeiro” (The Foreigner) [pt] describes the evolution in numbers of Syrian refugees in Brazil:

O Brasil tem sido um destino cada vez mais recorrente dos cidadãos sírios que tentam escapar da guerra civil que abala o país há mais de dois anos, agravada pela possível intervenção militar dos Estados Unidos. Desde o início dos conflitos, em março de 2011, o número de refugiados sírios no Brasil saltou 15 vezes: foi de 17 para 261. Eles já correspondem a 6% do total de refugiados no país.

Brazil has become an increasingly recurrent destination for Syrian citizens trying to escape the civil war which has hit the country for over two years, aggravated by possible military intervention by the United States. Since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011, the number of Syrian refugees in Brazil increased 15 times over: from 17 to 261. They already comprise 6 percent of the total number of refugees in the country.

Remaking Brazil's image in the eyes of the world

Brazil's ambitions to become a member of the UN Security Council, along with an increase in its participation in global governance, have given rise to an unavoidable dilemma: passivity without risk or taking responsibility for issues which were unfamiliar to the country until recently. This new positioning implies an increase in the number of troops sent abroad on missions under the mandate of the UN and participation in organisations such as the advisory body of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), to which the country awaits its admission once a donation of 6.5 million US dollars has been ratified.

The debate on refugees in Brazil promises to be exciting. It will bring foreign refugees face to face with Brazilian refugees. Yes, they do exist: They are the inhabitants of the slums known as “favelas” subjected to the violence of drug traffickers and corrupt police, and migrants from the poorest states in the country who accept jobs akin to slavery in the larger cities to escape the absolute misery of their villages, among others. Both realities have much in common, and if they were observed closely by the congress members, they would notice that in many corners of Brazil the situation is very similar to that experienced by the people of Palestine or South Sudan. 

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