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Children of African origin look at the camera without smiling. Photo: ACNUR/ F.Caffé
Image: ACNUR/ F.Caffé

Asylum in Brazil

Marina Estarque, Karina Gomes / cd
January 17, 2014

Brazil has seen the number of asylum seekers increase nearly tenfold over three years and official agencies are woefully unprepared to deal with the refugees. Few people receive asylum and help for immigrants is sparse.


The diagnosis was cardiac arrest. Yet the alleged cause of death for Mohammed Y.S. proved his gateway to freedom. The Syrian opposition member's abused body was tossed out on the street only because he was assumed to be dead. Those who saw him would have thought he was another victim of torture in the Syrian civil war.

But Mohammed Y.S. survived. Unconscious, passersby transported him to the closest hospital. Two months later, with a pacemaker installed in his chest, he left his homeland for Turkey, where, eight months later, he obtained a visa for Brazil. The electric engineer and his wife and two children moved to Sao Paulo in July 2013.

Fight for survival

In Brazil, political refugees from the Middle East or Africa have been a rare sight over the last few years. The South American country appears far removed from the horrors of war on foreign continents. But that is changing. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of people seeking asylum in Brazil increased nearly tenfold, from 566 to 5,200. Adding to those numbers are thousands of immigrants from Haiti, Senegal, Angola, Liberia, Bolivia, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

"Brazil has to prepare for an increasing crush of immigrants," said Andres Ramirez, who represents the UN's refugee agency in Brazil (Acnur). Since 2013, the organization has been operating a small office in Sao Paulo. One of the biggest problems, he told DW, is the lack of emergency shelters. "Many refugees sleep on the streets for days before they get any help," he said.

Andrés Ramirez smiles at the camera in front of the glass window of his United Nations agency. Photo: ACNUR/L.F.Godinho
Through his agency, Andres Ramirez tries to help immigrants transition to life in BrazilImage: ACNUR/L.F.Godinho

Of the 5,200 people applying for asylum in Brazil, just 649 were recognized, according to figures from the country's Ministry of Justice. The largest group among them, 283, came from Syria, followed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with 106, then Columbia and Angola.

From Bangladesh to Sao Paulo

The largest group seeking asylum, however, were the 1,814 Bangladeshis. Just one was recognized as a political refugee. Senegal followed with 868 asylum seekers, of whom four were recognized. In other conflict regions, such as Lebanon, Guinea-Bissau and Somalia, acceptance rates stood at below 3 percent.

Such statistics don't include the 15,000 Haitians in northern Brazil. Roughly 70 per day arrive in Brasilia, a city of just 10,000 in the state of Acre, bordering Peru. Most use the city as a layover toward work in the country's south, in cities such as Sao Paulo.

Flooding the moat

The unofficial influx has become a political problem. In an extraordinary cry for help, the state government of Acre requested on Wednesday (15.1.2014) that the federal Ministry of Justice allow it to close the border to Peru.

"The detention center is overcrowded. Instead of 300 immigrants, 1,200 Haitians are being housed there," said Nilson Mourao, the human rights secretary in Acre, to the Brazilian daily, "O Globo." Food supplies, he said, are dwindling.

The request unleashed a debate in Brazil over the federal refugee policy. In the capital, the Ministry of Justice replied that Brazil does not have a tradition of closing borders. Quite the contrary - since November the government has been working on a national plan for integrating immigrants.

The forms of homeless people in makeshift beds against the green wall of a shop. Photo: Macelo Casal/ABR
Immigration barriers push willing workers into homelessness, Ramirez saidImage: Macelo Casal/ABR

"The bureaucratic hurdles refugees have to overcome just to achieve a minimum of self-reliance in this country are enormous," said Pastor Marcelo Monge, who directs the activities of Caritas, an international Catholic charity, in the Sao Paulo archdiocese. Every day, his organization helps 80 refugees. "Brazilian authorities just aren't prepared to take on so many people."

Language course - in a mosque

For Mohammed and his family, starting over in a country of nearly 200 million wasn't easy. But unlike refugees from other countries, Syrians can count on support from their fellow citizens. According to statistics from the UN's Acnur, there are roughly 3 million Syrian immigrants.

Mohammed's day-to-day life takes place around the Pari Mosque in the immigrant quarter of Bras in Sao Paulo. Inside, he learns Portuguese with 70 other Syrians, prays and works on the community's website. Though his children have settled in to their new home and are attending school, Mohammed's thoughts drift back to civil war.

A man in a checkered long-sleeved shirt writes on a worksheet in a classroom setting. Photo: Marina Estarque
Conjugating verbs and thinking of Syria: Mohammed Y.S.Image: Marina Estarque

The area he called home has been completely destroyed. His brother's life is constantly threatened by aerial bombs. "There's nothing to eat. A lot of people are simply shot on open streets," he told DW, relaying the phone conversations he's had with family members who've stayed behind. "I have to rebuild my country," he said, admitting that a return to Syria is impossible - for now.

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