Photos: Courtesy of Betilde

70,000. That’s the estimate number of Venezuelans who entered Brazil in 2017 through the border city of Pacaraima, where high traffic was characteristic of Semana Santa and holidays, when Brazilians would travel to Isla de Margarita. Today, the influx is reversed; Venezuelans enter every day by car or foot, searching for a better, more dignified life.

What are their options? The Brazilian immigration law, Law 13.445, is one of the most progressive in the region. With an emphasis on human rights, it took effect in November 2017, simplifying the residency requirements and ensuring equal rights and opportunities for foreigners, as if they were Brazilians. Upon arrival, Venezuelans are received by the Federal Police, officers register them biometrically, and vaccinate them against epidemic diseases they should have been already protected against. Then they’re given two choices, according to their particular situation and Brazilian law: they can opt for a Temporary Residence Status, or a Refugee status.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) defines a “migrant” as “any person who is moving or has moved across an international border or within a State away from his/her habitual place of residence, regardless of (1) the person’s legal status; (2) whether the movement is voluntary or involuntary; (3) what the causes for the movement are; or (4) what the length of the stay is.” In Brazil, Venezuelans can apply for Temporary Residence Status, which gives them the possibility to stay in the country, live and work for two years, with the option to apply for Permanent Resident Status after that. The law requires they provide legal identification to start the process (a passport or a cédula de identidad). Having the migrant status allows the person to go to Venezuela and come back with no issues.

Venezuelans in Brazil can opt for a Temporary Residence Status, or a Refugee status.

A refugee, on the other hand, is defined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so.” The 1951 Geneva Convention (binding instrument) establishes these parameters, but, in 1984, ten countries in Latin America, including Venezuela, adopted the Cartagena Declaration (non-binding instrument), which broadened the concept of refugees to include those who “have fled their country because their lives, security or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.” Brazilian law doesn’t require any legal document for someone to apply for refugee status, which works out for lots of our compatriots who have been unable to get a passport. Being a refugee, however, prevents them from going back to Venezuela.

We often confuse terms and lump everyone together, but categories differ in the reasons for the move and the requirements and protections they’re subjected to. Venezuela, however, is massively exporting both: migrants and refugees, which makes us wonder about the merits of calling this a crisis. We keep talking about it, but how do we define a crisis?

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee on Humanitarian Issues explains it as “a singular event or a series of events in a country or region that cause serious disruption to the functioning of a society, resulting in human, material, or environmental losses which exceed the ability of affected people to cope using their own resources. A crisis may be further classified according to its speed of onset (sudden or slow), its length (protracted) or cause (natural or man-made hazard or armed conflict).”

The problem is that a “crisis” can be a subjective phenomenon hard to define in a one-size-fits-all concept. For example, Germany received 1 million Syrian refugees in a short period of time, but this was not labelled as a “crisis”, whereas Curaçao receiving a few thousand Venezuelans would consider it a “crisis.” Authorities in Roraima did consider it such, but a key requirement is having the international community consensus.

The problem is that a “crisis” can be a subjective phenomenon hard to define in a one-size-fits-all concept.

Let’s go back to the situation in Roraima: the border city of Boa Vista has about 300 thousand people. In 2017 and the first months of 2018, it received more than 10% of its population; around 900 people were living exposed to the elements, in the Plaza Simón Bolívar or the city square. Last week, thanks to the work of the Brazilian government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), they were moved to a new shelter. There are four other shelters: the Tancredo Neves, which houses some 900-1,000 people (non- indigenous), the Elio Campos shelter for about 400 people, Pintolandia and Passage of Pacaraima, which give shelter to 1,200 Warao and Eñapa people.  

All of them, no matter their ethnicity, come with malnutrition, tuberculosis, measles, parasitosis, HIV and with minimal material conditions to find a place to live or eat. A lot are in desperate need for a job because, as they claim, they don’t want to depend on charity and their families back home are waiting for them to send food and medicines.

The demand on the Brazilian health care, education system and basic social services, which were already strained, has been such that the federal government had to allocate additional funds to manage the situation. The Executive Order No. 823 authorized the emergency disbursement of 190 million reais to the Ministry of Defense to provide “emergency assistance and humanitarian assistance to people from the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,” with Brazilian authorities, volunteers and UNHCR personnel giving their all (the Organization of American States is also joining the efforts). Although there are situations of xenophobia and discrimination, there is ample evidence of Brazilians’ solidarity with Venezuelans.

In all, the situation in Roraima exemplifies how the social, economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela can have a spillover effect in the region. What are we to do? Keep moving the political debate towards the need to address the Venezuelan migration and refugee crisis from a Human Rights and “shared responsibility” perspective.

Because time is ticking.

* The views are personal and do not represent the position of the OAS.

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  1. Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Chile and others should be thanked, applauded and commended for receiving so many desperate Venezuelan people with open arms. It should be remembered.

    Luckily, in Latin America most average people do not suffer from 2 massive Evils of many other countries, especially in the Middle East: Xenophobia and Hate for other religions. (Is there a word for that? didn’t find it, but the discrimination sure exists notably in Radical Islam crap and that NASTY little book they call Koran ). Latinos are usually warm, friendly, welcoming, Venezuelans should count their blessings.

    But they are also highly corruptible. And that what this nice, shiny article doesn’t mention. The kinds of “work” many of these types of immigrants or refugees end up doing. My guesstimate is that over 60% of young women end up in prostitution, and a large portion of males in illegal stuff, like drug trade. And that they usually continue to be quite miserable, living in poor conditions in those border countries. They are uneducated, and unless they get lucky in Chile, they get the worst jobs. Still, thanks to those good people and friendly governments, they are better off than in Kleptozuela’s Hell.

    In return, there’s little Venezuelans can do. It’s not like Mexicans and others doing the jobs no one wants in the USA for low salaries no one else would work for. Poor Brazilians, Colombians or Peruvians would also gladly do any tough job for peanuts, so the more commendations and gratitude they deserve for accepting so much competition for food and jobs from Venezuela.

    The only hidden “Thank You Note” that’s being delivered, highly effectively, is “whatever you do, do NOT do what we did in Klepto-Cubazuela. Look at what “socialism” and freaking populism and disguised “democracies” did to us.” That could very well save Colombia now, Mexico and Brazil from Chavistoide thugs like Petro or other Lulas. A hell of a Thank You note indeed.

    • The other latin american countries have behaved commendably. But note that the candidate currently leading polls for July 1 presidential election is Andrés Manuel López Obrador(AMLO), who was cut from the same cloth as el finado.

  2. Brazil (vaccinations/tents/papers) is doing an admirable job. The much larger Cucuta emigration frequently is living in open air plazas. In any event, the extent of the depth of the Venezuelan emigration tragedy is well-depicted in the photos accompanying this article.

  3. The people in Roraima hate them….you can all applaud whatever you like….but what you have showing up …uneducated…thoughtless …mindless….stealing anything not nailed down…not to mention their lack of respect……shared responsibilities my ass…

  4. Is the author of this article the Director of Social Inclusion at the very same OAS which is largely responsible for this mess in the first place?

    Talk about the dog chasing its own tail.

  5. I fail to see why an immigration law is “progressive” just because it allows everybody in. I guess it’s another of those language corruptions where words are used to describe the exact opposite, like “human rights” activists that don’t give a rat’s ass about right humans.

    • The left has hijacked the word to mean something totally different.

      For example, work requirements for welfare recipients in the states isn’t considered progressive…they label it right wing reactionary…but such policies get people working and reduce costs, as if those are bad things.

      A welfare system that truly helps those in need, those incapable of sufficiently working and supporting themselves, is as progressive as you can get, while dumping the freeloaders to make that possible.

  6. […] As previously shared on this site, the OAS carried out a visit to the border between Venezuela and Brazil, and their report reveals the humanitarian nature of the crisis, the vulnerabilities in terms of health and malnutrition of Venezuelan migrants and refugees in Brazil, the nature of the Brazilian response to the crisis, and some proposals to support OAS countries when receiving massive flows of Venezuelans. […]


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