On the morning of Dec. 9, Roberta Alvim was sitting in her office when she received a call from a friend, João Carlos Jarochinski Silva.
She had met him a few months before at a conference on human trafficking at the University of Roraima, in Boa Vista, Brazil. As a federal public defender, Alvim had just been posted to Boa Vista, the capital of the state of Roraima. Jarochinski Silva, a professor of international relations with extensive experience researching migrations in the Amazon, was teaching at the university. Their fields of interest overlapped. As they left the conference they exchanged cards and proposed to keep in touch.
“Roberta,” he said urgently over the phone, “I am at the Federal Police station. They have rounded up hundreds of people, women and children. A lot of them are indigenous. I think they speak Warao. They are going to deport them all.”
“When?” she asked.
Overnight, the police had begun rounding up people living on the streets of Boa Vista. The large majority of them were indigenous people of the Warao tribe, who migrated from their ancestral home in the delta of the Orinoco river, in northeastern Venezuela, trying to escape the hardship of a failing state. But in Roraima, where political and racial tensions are traditionally high (proportionally, Roraima has the highest indigenous population of the country), a further influx of indigenous people was not taken lightly by the local authorities.
By mid-afternoon, the police were ready to start the mass deportation. The asylum procedures, customary in these circumstances, could not possibly have been respected in the few hours between the roundup and the decision to expel them.
“It’s simple math, really,” recalled Alvim, sitting on a suede couch in the office of an NGO in Geneva a few months after the incident. “Let’s assume you have all the 450 people rounded up by 7 a.m. in the Federal Police station, and let’s assume you have ready an official translator who is fluent in both Warao and Portuguese. You’d still have only less than two minutes per person to assess their asylum status. That’s just impossible.”
Following the same logic, on Dec. 9, Alvim decided to draft a collective habeas corpus—a legal recourse in which an unlawful detention can be reported to a court and which requires the court to determine if the detention is lawful.
As the bus filled with Venezuelan migrants headed for the border following the Federal Highway-174, an almost straight line cutting through the state, hopes to stop the mass deportation decreased with each passing kilometer.
Then the bus broke down.
“Can you believe it?” Jarochinski Silva told me jubilantly over the phone. “I mean, the Federal Court was very quick in accepting Alvim’s habeas corpus and in ruling on it, but probably without that bus it wouldn’t have worked.”
After a few hours, they’d got the bus moving again, but just a few kilometers from the border the bus stopped again, this time to turn back towards Boa Vista.
No more mass deportations have been registered since then. But this was not an isolated case, and for Venezuelan migrants scattered across Brazil, their hardship is far from over.
Roraima—one of the poorest and least-populated states in Brazil—has seen an exponential increase in Venezuelan immigration in the past couple of years. According to official data, there were more refugee status applications in 2016 than during the six preceding years combined. The number of applications from January to June has already exceeded the 2016 number by thousands.
“Official data do not reflect the situation accurately. They downplay it,” Alvim said. “There are people crossing the border in areas that are not controlled, others that cross at night and others still that just come to Brazil for few hours to buy products that they’ll sell back in Venezuela. It really is bigger and more complex phenomenon than these data show.”
The situation in Venezuela began its slow descent into chaos with the death of President Hugo Chavez in 2013. But it was a process years in the making, as Venezuelan economic policies made it one of the most oil-dependent countries in the world. With over 95 percent of its exports and over 40 percent of government revenues tied to the crude market, the nosedive of oil prices resulted in a low availability of foreign currency that, given Venezuela’s dependence on imported food, led to food shortages. From 2014, the national economy began to deteriorate dramatically, and within three years it was on the brink of collapse.
Food and medicine are in severe shortage, with queues forming outside distribution centers and supermarkets in the early hours of the morning and lasting till evening. And bringing something home is not a given. Hyperinflation has rendered a single bolívar virtually worthless. The situation is so severe that a worker with a family of five in Caracas would need the equivalent of 14 minimum wages to buy the food necessary to feed them all.
With the Venezuelan National Assembly declaring President Nicolás Maduro in “abandonment of the position” on Jan. 9, and the consequent retaliation from the ruling party—the arrest of multiple members of the opposition and the declaration of the National Assembly as “self-dissolved”—the situation in Venezuela began to degenerate further. In April, the protests picked up, quickly escalating to La madre de todas las marchas (“the mother of all marches”) where, according to some accounts, 2.5 million people gathered in Caracas alone to protest against the government.
With the intensification of protests and marches, security in Venezuela deteriorated dramatically. Pro-government paramilitary groups (the colectivos) and the National Guard (Guardia Nacional) began to systematically repress dissident—including by shooting rubber bullets and gas canisters into crowds, mass detentions and human rights abuses. According to non-government sources, 163 people have died during protests since the beginning of the year. Official sources stop the counting at 129.
Amid this war-like situation where insecurity, criminality, impunity, corruption and poverty are rampant, many Venezuelans are seeking survival in neighbouring countries. Many migrate to Colombia, but increasing numbers are traveling southward on the Venezuelan highway 10 (la Troncal 10) into Roraima, the only paved road crossing the 2,199-kilometer border with Brazil.
“The first thing that ran out was milk. The rest rapidly followed,” said Telma Lage, a nun and Coordinator of the Center for Migration and Human Rights of the Diocese of Roraima, in the border town of Pacaraima, Brazil. She recalls how one the first families she helped used to have a small yogurt-making business in Caracas that was doing well before the crisis. But when the milk became impossible to find, Maibel and Luís had to sell their business to feed their four kids. Fortunately, Luís landed a job as a waiter in a restaurant, which for a short while allowed them to get by. “But it was not enough,” she said. “They had no other choice. They decided to migrate to survive.”
Immigrating to Brazil is not easy. Work permits are hard to get, so most people find employment in the black market. This creates issues in the already stagnant local job market. The service sector is the largest source of employment in Roraima, so daily, unskilled and semi-skilled jobs are not easy to find.
The influx of cheap, more-qualified and desperate workers from Venezuela has created a two-tier labor market. Brazilians (or, more generally, people entitled to minimum wage) work for 70 to 80 reals per day, about $23. Venezuelans, most of whom are employed informally, work for a sixth of that unloading trucks, working in restaurants or selling food in the streets, among other occupations. These, however, are not the worst off. A growing number of immigrants are pushed to work in prostitution or in a state of quasi-slavery, working long hours in exchange for food and, if lucky, shelter, without documents or rights.
The low pay is not the only problem with informal work. Unlike formal employment, informal work is occasional, requires longer hours and usually pays daily—all conditions that perpetuate poverty over time. “Daily payment is good, on the one hand, because it allows a family to address its most pressing needs right away,” Lage said. “But on the other hand, it is not. Daily payments keep workers in a constant state of crisis-management and make accumulation of wealth to deal with crisis, like someone in the family falling ill, next to impossible.”
Informal labor in Roraima is flooded by professionals—lawyers, doctors, nurses, engineers—whose degrees are not recognized by Brazilian law and who often cannot access work permits. “It is a shame that in a state so remote and with so little resources, the government is not capitalizing on this influx of highly qualified workers,” Lage said. Brazilian immigration law, passed during the years of the dictatorship, focuses primarily on protecting national security to the detriment of human rights. Although the government recently adopted a new, more flexible and rights-oriented immigration law, it won’t enter into force until November.
To tackle this growing humanitarian crisis, in March 2017, the Brazilian National Immigration Council passed new legislation granting a two-year temporary residential status to all migrants from bordering countries. This move occurred as an attempt to allow Venezuelans to stay in Brazil legally, while keeping them away from the short-staffed national asylum system. But the program was set up to fail; only 182 people applied as of June. Most were prevented because of the cost, about $90, and the requirement to submit applications personally in Boa Vista, some 180 kilometers from the border town of Pacaraima. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice said that from January to May, 8,231 people claimed asylum in Brazil—a procedure free of costs for the applicant. Over 5,000 of these applications arrived in less than three months (March to early May), when a new wave of violent protest hit Venezuela.
“It is a very complex situation for the state of Roraima,” said Alvim, the public defender. “Its infrastructure, from health systems to food distribution, is not strong enough to support all these people.”
An increasing number of Venezuelans can now be found in Manaus, in the neighboring state of Amazonas. They mainly lived on the streets outside the bus terminal until 300 were allowed to move into a shelter. Recently, another 200 moved into five houses rented for them, but it’s estimated that up to 1,000 others are also in the city.
“Unless the municipal, state and federal authorities begin to accept that this crisis will not vanish into thin air and begin addressing it together, I can’t really picture any positive outcome,” Alvim said. “There are local projects that try to do their best, but this is a humanitarian crisis unfolding before our eyes. Until there is a political solution from the federal government, nothing will really change.
“Blocking mass deportations just to let people live in the streets without support is not what we are here for.”