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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