The state government of Acre has told Conectas that it will close the immigration shelter in the town of Brasileia, on the border with Bolivia. The Acrean authorities said that by Saturday they will transfer all the immigrants living in the shelter – the majority Haitians – to an exhibition center in the state capital, Rio Branco, from where they will be sent to Porto Velho, in the neighboring state of Rondônia, where buses will be ready to transport them to São Paulo, according to information from the administrator of the shelter in Brasileia, Damião Borges.
More than 20,000 Haitians have already passed through the shelter in Brasileia over the past three years and in recent weeks the population of the shelter, which was originally designed to hold 300 people, has swollen to more than 2,500. On the day of the announcement alone, another 108 Haitians arrived at the site. According to Borges, all the new arrivals will be informed that the shelter has been relocated to Rio Branco. After that, he said, the immigrants will have to make their own way from Brasileia to the state capital, or they may choose to apply for a visa at the border, but without being entitled to food, shelter or any other support from the local authorities.
According to Conectas Human Rights – an organization that visited the shelter in August last year and made public complaints, took part in bilateral meetings with the ministries of Foreign Relations, Justice and Labor, and helped organize a regional hearing on the topic in the OAS (Organization of American States), in Washington, to denounce the precarious conditions at the shelter and the problems involving the ‘humanitarian visa’ offered by Brazil – the measure is only palliative and does not solve the underlying problem.
“It took them more than 8 months to take action. And, when they finally did, we can see that it is just another provisional, palliative and uncoordinated solution,” said Camila Asano, coordinator of Foreign Policy at Conectas. “If the so-called ‘humanitarian visa’ was being issued like it should be, at the Brazilian Embassy in Port-au-Prince, none of these Haitian immigrants would have to go through this ordeal, traveling with coyotes through Peru to Brazil, many of them with only the clothes on their backs.”
Asano said that the situation exposes the problems inherent in Brazil’s current immigration law, which dates back to the dictatorship. According to her, the country urgently needs to review its legislation on the matter, or risk constantly becoming involved in similar crises. In the case of Haiti, an aggravating factor is that Brazil boasted loudly about the solution it called the ‘humanitarian visa’, whereby the government would deny refugee status to all Haitians but issue documentation and work permits, offering what Asano considers “a policy of partial asylum, which cannot cope with the complexity and the fragility of this inflow from Haiti, a country that has been severely punished, first by violence and then by one of the worst natural disasters on record”.
When Conectas visited the town last year, it exposed the appalling conditions at the shelter. More than 800 people were packed into an area with a capacity to hold 200 people. There were only 10 lavatories and 8 showers for everyone to share and no soap or toothpaste was provided. Sewage leaked outside in the open air and the local hospital reported that 90% of the patients from the shelter had diarrhea. Conectas denounced the situation and received a promise from the federal government that it would organize a task force to address the conditions at the shelter, but nothing was ever done.
Asano refutes the argument made by the state government of Acre that the population of Brasileia was bearing too heavy a burden and needed to rid itself of the immigrants. “If this was the case, it was the sole responsibility of the state government of Acre and the federal government. Both took months to address the problem, allowing thousands of people to live with open sewage, hidden away in a place covered with plastic sheeting, with no segregation of men and women, and without even the minimum conditions of human dignity.”