Photo: Operação Acolhida
After an unexpected, expensive journey, full of dangers and diseases, abuse and delays, Venezuelan migrants who want to test their luck in Brazil or want to use this country as a bridge to reach Argentina or Chile, will arrive to the border from Santa Elena de Uairén, south of La Gran Sabana. Currency isn’t the bolivar, but a gram of gold, American dollars or Brazilian reais. And they’ll have one last taste of the Venezuelan state in a temporary office on the edge of the road, where they’ll stamp their passports and issue exit permits to those who have their vaccines and criminal records. From that moment on, a new reality awaits those who enter Brazil for the first time.
A recent reality, derived from really bad experiences, under the general context of the sudden relationship between two nations who don’t know each other quite well. Because up until this migratory explosion, very few Brazilians lived in Venezuela and very few Venezuelans lived in Brazil. Historically and geographically separated by the language and the rainforest, Venezuelans barely knew about Brazil because of soccer, telenovelas and music. Now, thousands of Venezuelans are making their way even if they don’t know how, forced by the collapse of the economy. But what they find across the border is different to what Venezuelans walking towards Colombia find. In Brazil, the Operaçao Acolhida awaits. It’s a humanitarian attention (and security) operation by the Brazilian Army, executed with the support of 118 NGOs and government agencies.
The Operaçao Acolhida started under Michel Temer’s government, in 2017, as a political decision to straighten up the border once Brazil realized that the flow of Venezuelan migrants would only get bigger. The xenophobia and violence were starting to spread in a city overwhelmed by the arrival of homeless migrants. “Now migrants sleep in camps that they’re allowed to leave during the day,” says María Teresa Belandria, the ambassador appointed by the National Assembly, officially recognized by Brazil as Venezuela’s diplomatic representative. “Those who aren’t in camps can safely leave their belongings there, because there have been robberies, and they can borrow tents. They have places to shower. They serve meals at set times each day, prioritizing the most vulnerable, everything organized by the Army. It’s painful to see 1,500 Venezuelans waiting to eat, but they eat.”
Those who don’t have a passport or any other document, like minors who are entering the country to say there.
They all enter through Pacaraima, the only overpass by land. Those who have a passport go to a police station and describe their goals: if they expect to make it to another city in Brazil or another country. “They even take their fingerprints,” says Belandria. “If a minor only has a birth certificate, he qualifies as a refugee and they issue a transit document with photo, and hand and footprint.” Those who don’t have a passport or any other document, like minors who are entering the country to say there, first go to a UNHCR office and they explain the options Brazil offers upon arrival: refuge, temporary or permanent residence. The federal police IDs them and the IMO registers their iris.
Belandria says that every Venezuelan is Brazil has been identified by the federal police, “unlike other countries in the region. They all have medical exams and vaccines.” The most vulnerable, like people who are HIV+, get even better medical attention. For all of these stages of aid, they used the humanitarian aid donated by USAID and the Brazilian government that the FANB didn’t allow into Venezuela on February 22nd.
Because of the diseases in the region, migrants who arrive to Brazil to stay must be vaccinated in the border and spend 21 days in quarantine in one of the 15 refugee camps in Boavista or four camps in Pacaraima, one of them for indigenous people.
This division is necessary and it has to do with complexity within complexity: “The Brazilian government knows it can’t assimilate indigenous communities,” says María Teresa Belandria. “ 950 Pemon taurepá who ran from the Kumarakapay massacre in February, crossed on foot and took refuge Taraú Parú in the border. UNHCR and the Operation built houses for them. Half of them went back to Venezuela and the rest are there, in a community where they speak the same language, where the concern is integrating children to Brazilian school.”
You can’t walk from there: that’s where the Amazon rainforest is. Rio de Jainero and Sao Paulo are too far.
Paracaima and Boa Vista are located in Roraima State, the poorest state in Brazil, its local government has been intervened from Michael Temer’s government. The Amazon State is to the south, as large as Venezuela and in it, is the city of Manaos, with more Venezuelans every time. You can’t walk from there: that’s where the Amazon rainforest is. Rio de Jainero and Sao Paulo are too far, on the other side of a sea of poverty and an ocean of rainforest.
It’s from Boa Vista and Manaos that the majority of Venezuelans start spreading across Brazilian territory, to settle or continue to Argentina, Chile or Uruguay. “Some people don’t have jobs but they have a plan,” says ambassador Belandria, “they are relying on becoming nationals on their own, family reunification (they have relatives in Brazil who can sponsor them before the Operaçao Acolhida) or social reunification (the same thing but with friends).” All of this is coordinated by the Casa Civil, including 14 ministries, all the churches and NGOs, clubs, Rotary, private citizens.” Evangelical churches have been very active in helping migrants in their new destinations in Brazil: they win churchgoers. Some migrants know this and approach these churches voluntarily.
When there’s finally a job or a sponsor waiting for a Venezuelan migrant, he must leave Boa Vista by plane or Manaos by plane or by boat on the river. The Operaçao has seats in commercial or Armed Forces flights, they book their tickets and then they should wait for their turn. Upon arrival to their destination, the company Sodexho awaits with a prepaid debit card for one minimum wage, so they can survive during their first month of work, before they get their first salary.
Ambassador Belandria says that around 280,000 Venezuelans have crossed through Brazil, most of them only on their way to other destinations. “Out of those, 171,000 are living here, 75,000 on a refugee condition, and the rest are temporary or permanent residents.” The difference with Andean regions, is that the Venezuelan migrant flow isn’t debated on national media, other than the specific events in Roraima, where 10 out of 20 newborns have Venezuelan mothers. “There’s no xenophobia here. The other way around, it’s all about understanding, because the government has been making decisions with people who are detained, including infiltrated agents. People who are detained lose their refugee condition.”
When a Venezuelan is detained, they notify the embassy to see if they can provide legal assistance. But the current Embassy of Venezuela is a hotel room.
When a Venezuelan is detained, they notify the embassy to see if they can provide legal assistance. But the current Embassy of Venezuela is a hotel room, made up of mostly volunteers, with equipment and supplies that have been borrowed or donated by other delegations. Venezuelan consular offices aren’t working. The resources the ambassador orders don’t go to her office; they go straight from donors to the agencies involved in the Operaçao Acolhida. “However,” says Belandria, “we try to serve as a liason. A few days ago a Venezuelan man died alone from a heart attack in a hospital in Curitiba. We were notified by the hospital and I issued an authorization to the Venezuelan community there to claim the body. They buried him in a Catholic service. A lot of people have died, one per day in Boa Vista, either because they were sick or any other cause.”
María Teresa Belandria says that since February, more vulnerable people have joined the migratory flow. They’re coming from all corners of Venezuela, including Zulia and Táchira. From farmers who didn’t finish primary school to professionals.
However, says the ambassador, the Brazilian state is prepared. At least for the Venezuelan migrant flow increasing from 600 people a day, how it is today, to 1000.