The war in Syria is forcing more and more people to flee. Some of them are seeking refuge in Brazil, but the country puts bureaucratic hurdles in their way. Experts believe Brazil should do more to help asylum seekers.
Until the spring of 2011, the employees of the Brazilian embassy in Damascus were mostly occupied with routine tasks as far as immigration formalities were concerned, processing around 100 applications per year.
But then, violence broke out in Syria and an increasing number of Syrians made the decision to leave their country. This is when the embassy workers saw a sharp rise in immigration visa applications. And even though Brazil's ambassador to Syria moved his office to Beirut, Lebanon, in July 2012, the numbers haven't fallen. Altogether, around 1,000 visa applications were processed by the embassy before the fall of 2012.
Lives under threat
According to Lama Fakih from the Human Rights Watch office in Beirut, who oversees the situation of Syrian war victims, Syrians have every reason to leave their homeland. The refugees in the camps near the Turkish border are still vulnerable to air strikes by Syrian government forces - and the amount of humanitarian assistance getting through to them is limited. "This is due in part to the Syrian government's refusal to allow humanitarian assistance to come into the country," Fakih told DW. Even the United Nations is required to conduct all of its operations via Damascus, which results in "significant delays in being able to get the needed humanitarian assistance into these areas."
Even if they leave Syria behind, the refugees face further problems, Fakih pointed out. Around two million of them are currently being hosted by neighboring countries, which have introduced more restrictive immigration measures in response to the mass influx. Turkey, Jordan and Iraq have even turned some asylum seekers away. Lebanon held its doors open for the longest time, but since August it has not been accepting all Syrians who wish to settle there. All four states have failed to provide legal protective status to the asylum seekers, according to Fakih.
For this reason, more and more conflict zone residents are pinning their hopes on other countries, including Brazil. But, so far, only very few have successfully managed to emigrate there. According to a spokesman for the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 261 Syrian refugees are currently residing in Brazil.
A history of Arab immigration
"This is an extremely small number, if you consider that the war has turned nearly two million people into refugees," commented Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the renowned Fundacao Getulio Vargas college and Amnesty International Brazil adviser. He believes Brazil has the capacity to take in more refugees, especially in light of its history.
In the late 19th century, increasing numbers of Arabs - especially Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians - decided to emigrate due to economic hardships. Many of them found a new home in American countries, including Brazil. And although the immigration wave slowed down at various times in the 20th century, it never halted completely. A new influx of immigrants was triggered by the Lebanese Civil War (1975 to 1991). Today, around 15 million Brazilians have Arab heritage. This is why, according to Santoro, Brazil has a strong connection to Syria. "Many of those who are killing and dying in Syria have relatives and friends in Brazil.
Reluctant refugee intake
Nevertheless, Brazil has taken in few Syrian refugees so far. But this, too, has historical reasons, according to Felix Dane, head of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Brazil. "Since the Second World War, Brazil has been reluctant to discuss the issue of refugees," Dane told DW. "The country prefers to keep out of international conflicts. This is why Brazil has taken in very few asylum seekers thus far. Conversely, interest in Brazil has not loomed large among refugees either."
This situation only changed recently, he pointed out. As a consequence of the Haiti earthquake in 2010, many refugees settled in Brazil. And although the situation was difficult for Brazil at first, it later "accepted the refugees and even gave them citizenship." Despite this, only 4,000 refugees reside in Brazil today.
"For a country of 200 million people, this is of course a very small number," said Dane. "But the question is being addressed, independently of the Syria issue. The debate on this topic had become dormant, but now it's being stirred up again."
Antiquated immigration laws
Despite the changes, the Syrian refugees in Brazil face many bureaucratic challenges in attaining an official refugee status. They need to prove they have a permanent place of residence and no criminal record. But things like that are hard to prove given the tragic circumstances in their home country, according to Santoro. "For this reason, Brazil should relax its regulations."
For the government, security issues also play a role. Brazilian authorities fear that radical Islamists could be found among the refugees. Santoro takes this argument into account, but at the same time points out that most of the refugees are women and children. According to him, the bigger problem is Brazil's immigration laws, which originate from the era of the military dictatorship, which at the time wanted to keep foreign opponents out of the country. But he believes the time has come to put an end to such restrictions: "They do not reflect Brazil's democratic values and legislature," he said.