The number of homeless Venezuelans in Pacaraima, a city in the state of Roraima, on the border with Venezuela, has exploded — they are now 4,015, up 243% compared to May, the month before the reopening of the border.
According to a survey by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for August, among the homeless there are 2,065 migrants and refugees from the neighboring country sleeping on the streets of the municipality of 18,000 inhabitants — it would be as if the city of São Paulo had 1.32 million refugees living on the sidewalks.
There are also 1,695 in occupations in public spaces and 255 in private places provided. The two shelters of Operation Welcome, led by the army, are full, according to the Civil House — the BV-8, with capacity for 2,000 people, houses 1,985, and the Janokoida, which holds 400, has 497 indigenous people.
“Unfortunately, the process of solving documentation and more serious humanitarian assistance cases is not compatible with the great demand”, says Wellthon Leal, monitoring advisor for Cáritas, a Catholic organization that supports refugees.
President Jair Bolsonaro (non-party) cited the situation in Pacaraima recently to criticize the regime of Venezuela’s dictator, Nicolás Maduro, and praise the welcome offered by Brazil. “In the next few weeks I’m going to Pacaraima, in Roraima, to show the women arriving there, fleeing the dictatorship, with a child in their belly, two or three in their arms, fleeing hunger, poverty and dictatorship.”
He also stated that women, “along the way on foot, prostitute themselves to be able to feed themselves.” “This is happening in one of the richest countries in the world, Venezuela.”
The government’s Communication Secretariat, in the wake of the president’s statements, has been running campaigns on social networks with the motto “Operation Welcome, socialism segregates, Brazil welcomes”. Bolsonaro should go to Roraima on September 29th.
According to UNHCR, the UN agency for refugees, the increase in the number of Venezuelan migrants and refugees living on the streets is due to two reasons: the demand repressed after months of closed borders, and the fact that Operation Welcome and its partners are with reduced staff during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, says the Casa Civil, they are being gradually expanded.
The border was closed to the entry of Venezuelan migrants and asylum seekers in March 2020, with ordinances alleging health reasons due to the Covid crisis. Thus, Venezuelans were prohibited from entering by land, and those who entered illegally were subject to summary deportation, a measure that violates international refugee treaties.
The decision was only revoked on June 23 this year. During this period, all who entered illegally, through the so-called “trochas”, were prohibited from requesting refuge, according to the Brazilian government.
Now, the border is open on the Brazilian side, but not on Venezuela. For this reason, according to Venezuelans in Pacaraima, the country’s military requires between US$ 50 and US$ 100 (R$ 262 to R$ 524) to authorize passage through the official entrance, which causes many to resort to irregular roads.
“I entered by ‘trochas’ because I was able to pay in reais, and it was much cheaper. R$30 to come by motorbike”, says Y., who was in Boa Vista and returned to Venezuela when the border opened, in June, to pick up her son.
The more than 2,000 people on the streets of Pacaraima have at their disposal only 16 chemical toilets and eight showers, built by Cáritas with funding from USAID, the American agency for international development. The municipal government, in turn, does not provide hygiene infrastructure for Venezuelans who are outside the shelters.
“Our project for guaranteeing bathrooms, showers and washing clothes has met part of this demand, but it is not enough,” says Leal, an advisor at Cáritas. “It shows us in practice that more investment is needed in public policies and concern with the health issue of migrants, not only due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but thinking about the migratory flow that tends to intensify, which directly impacts health collective, whether migrants or not.”
Homeless Venezuelans receive passwords from the Federal Police and wait for assistance to be regularized, with a request for refuge or residence permit. Priority is given to people entering through the official border, receiving immediate assistance. On the other hand, Venezuelans who arrive by “trochas” face lines. Only 300 people a day are served in Pacaraima, and 300 in Boa Vista.
From Pacaraima, refugees and migrants go to shelters in Boa Vista, capital of Roraima, and some enter the interiorization program, which sends them to other Brazilian states.
Barber Luis Miguel Marcano, 23, came from the Venezuelan state of Monagas, about 750 km from Pacaraima, with his wife, Maria Orfeli, 22, children, Miguel Angel, 1, and Rosmary, 4, and his brother-in-law, too. barber. It took them two days to reach the Brazilian municipality.
China, Middle Land
They took the first bus stretch and then paid $10 to a truck driver to take them to the border. The driver, however, asked them to go down so he could pack the vehicle and left. They then had to walk six kilometers in strong sunlight to get a ride.
In Brazil, Maria Orfeli and her children got a place in the shelter of their sister Ana Maria, which takes in women and children. Marcano, in turn, has been on the street for 16 days, under the marquee of a store. Use Caritas showers and cut hair to survive. “I cut for R$5, R$15, as much as they can afford,” he says, who is waiting for the completion of the interiorization process before leaving Pacaraima with his family. “I don’t complain about sleeping on the street, in a little while we’ll continue our journey and get a job.”
According to Elena Graglia, medical coordinator of the NGO Doctors Without Borders project in Roraima, many migrants travel for days in Venezuela until they manage to cross the border. They arrive with burns, and, due to the sanitary conditions, many have scabies, a contagious skin disease that causes a lot of itching. “Another problem is that many people have chronic diseases, such as cancer and diabetes, were unable to find medical care in Venezuela and were prevented from coming to Brazil during the period when the border was closed,” she says.
MSF goes to Pacaraima twice a month, where it works in shelters, such as that of sister Ana Maria, in squatters and on the streets. The volume has grown so much that the NGO plans to make weekly appointments.
Since the beginning of the political and economic crisis in Venezuela, around 5.4 million citizens have left the country. According to the most recent data from R4V, a platform that brings together civil society organizations and the UN for immigration, there are 261,441 Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Brazil.
The high numbers in municipalities close to the border between the countries have already generated clashes. In August 2018, on the streets of Pacaraima, groups chased Venezuelans and burned their belongings after a local merchant was beaten up during an attempted robbery. Battered with sticks, the refugees were expelled from the tents they occupied.
According to the Federal Police, 184,659 Venezuelans entered Brazil in 2018, and 193,150 in 2019. The following year, with the pandemic and the restrictions imposed, that number plummeted to 32,823. Now, in 2021, until the beginning of September, there were 15,726, but the figure could be higher, since, with the closing of the border, many migrants have entered and have not been regularized, for fear of being deported.
The repeal of the border closure has caused the monthly number of entries of Venezuelans registered by the police to jump from seven in May to 6,763 in August.
Asked about preparations for Bolsonaro’s visit, the mayor of Pacaraima, Juliano Torquato (Republicans), said in a message that he intends to “show the reality experienced by our population, without masking this reality, so that there is more sensitivity of the federal government in the which concerns border security, the fluidity of interiorization and other issues relevant to immigration”.
The IOM reported that it was internalizing, on average, 1,700 Venezuelans per month — a number that jumped to 2,443 in August and should be between 2,400 and 2,800 monthly by the end of the year. According to the Civil House, 22,228 Venezuelans were internalized in 2019; 19,389 in 2020 and 12,126 in 2021.