Haiti earthquake victims: Haitian refugees abused, abandoned in Brazil
Adventures of a Gringa in RioFebruary 21, 2011 23:16
Last week, a curious story appeared in the Brazilian media about a displaced group of people in the Amazon, specifically in Tabatinga, a frontier town on the border with Peru and Colombia. But they weren't from an indigenous tribe, or migrant workers from the Northeast. They're Haitian immigrants, who have paid between US$2,500 and $3,500 for a long journey to Brazil in the hopes they can get jobs to send money back home to their families.
The trek begins in Haiti, where would-be migrants take a bus to the Dominican Republic, where they pay a free to an agency that promises them work in Brazil. From Santo Domingo, they fly to Panama City, and then take another flight to Quito, Ecuador. From there, they take a bus to Lima, Peru, and then yet another bus to Iquitos, in the Peruvian Amazon. They then take a boat to Tabatinga, which they hope to use a springboard to Manaus or even further to major cities like São Paulo.
But the Haitian immigrants face major obstacles once they even reach Brazil. Recently, the Brazilian government announced that it would no longer grant refugee visas to Haitians, claiming they don't fit the profile for this particular visa (persecution due to race, religion, politics, or human rights violations). This means that the Haitians run the risk of being deported.
According to the Federal Police, 294 Haitians have entered Brazil since January 2010, but apparently the visa issue will affect more than 300 Haitians currently living in Tabatinga, and that closer to 475 Haitians entered Brazil through the Amazon port in 2010. Meanwhile, local sources estimate up to 600 Haitians are currently living in Tabatinga. While the federal government has expressed concern about the dispossessed foreigners, it's also very considered about public health risks, specifically cholera.
The immigrants live in squalid conditions, with barely enough to eat. While the local Church and Catholic leaders are helping the migrants, they are forced to share tiny, leaky shacks. Some manage to eke out a living selling popsicles or working in construction. Some aren't even that lucky, and end up begging for food. The language barrier is yet another problem, since few speak Portuguese. Many hope to head to Manaus, where there are more jobs, but saving up R$170 for the ticket is difficult.
There are a number of reasons immigrants claim to have decided to go to Brazil. They hope to find jobs because of the strong economy, and ruled out closer countries like Peru due to poor economic conditions, Colombia due to violence, and Ecuador due to racism. Some have dreams of becoming soccer players. Some have gotten lucky and managed to get a work visa, and enough money to get to Manaus, where they hope to earn money to go home again. But others aren't so lucky. One immigrant, a photographer from Port-au-Princem told Globo that he was expecting a child, so he sold all of his photography equipment to pay for the trip to Brazil. He now lives in Tabatinga, where he shares a six square meter room with seven other immigrants that costs R$150 a month to rent. He doesn't know how his family is doing at home, since he doesn't have enough to call.
Haitians in Tabatinga claim to have been welcomed by the locals, and to have been treated much better than in other countries on their journey. Some locals have been frustrated by the Haitians asking for low wages, which in turn force locals to accept lower wages, but some have helped the newcomers to negotiate the right prices. But now, many Haitians in Tabatinga are stuck in limbo, and depend on the kindness of local Brazilians to get by. The National Immigration Council, part of the Brazilian Department of Labor, will ultimately determine the fates of the Haitians so far from home.