Infosurhoy :: São Paulo: Haitians in search of the Brazilian dream

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SÃO PAULO, Brazil – As he helps serve food to customers, Robinson Jean Baptiste also is feeding his dreams of a better future.

This 26-year-old restaurant employee in the city of São Paulo is one of about 8,000 Haitians who entered Brazil during the past three years, including 6,000 who arrived between January and September 2013, according to Brazil’s Federal Police.

The wave of immigration began in January 2010, after an earthquake devastated Haiti and killed nearly 300,000 people.

The decision to immigrate to Brazil is a natural one, given the country is leading the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which was introduced in 2004.

“They’re coming here because we’re a positive reference for them,” said João Paulo Charleaux, the director of communications for Conectas, a Brazilian NGO that works to defend human rights. “Our cultural and racial identity also leads them to believe that they will be welcomed here.”

In 2012, Brazil’s Federal Government created the humanitarian visa, allowing Haitians to spend five years in the country.

But the majority pay about US$4,000 to coyotes in order to enter Brazil, according to the NGO.

With 20,000 residents, the city of Brasiléia in the state of Acre is the main point of entry for refugees. About 40 Haitians arrive daily in the municipality, which is close to the border with Peru and Bolivia.

Since 2011, the city of Brasiléia has received a total of R$6.5 million in assistance from the state and federal governments to handle this issue.

But the situation remains calamitous, Chaleaux said.

In August, members of Conectas visited Brasiléia and found 832 Haitians housed in a warehouse with capacity for 200 people.

There were just 10 toilets and eight showers. The 200-m2 space has a zinc roof and improvised walls made of plastic sheeting, causing temperatures inside to reach 40ºC.

“Rags are used as sleeping mats and many of the Haitians have suffered from diarrhea,” Charleaux said.

In addition to sending letters to Brazilian authorities, the NGO participated in an October hearing on the issue that was held before the Organization of American States (OAS) in the U.S. capital of Washington, D.C.

In early November, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala announced an agreement to combat the actions being carried out by middlemen along the migratory route used by Haitians.

A journey to Brazil

Robinson Jean Baptiste, a Haitian who works in a restaurant, said his trip to Brazil took five months.

On March 21, 2012, he left the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and crossed the border into the Dominican Republic, where he boarded a plane to Panama. From there, Baptiste continued to the Ecuadoran capital of Quito. He then traveled across Peru by bus until reaching the border with the state of Acre.

Like most Haitians, he spent two months in Brasiléia until receiving a visa that allowed him to stay and secure other documents, such as a work permit and ID card.

His first job involved washing cars at a dealership in Porto Velho in the state of Rondônia. On Oct. 17, 2012, he arrived in São Paulo, which is the final destination for a large portion of Haitian immigrants.

“I endured a lot of difficult moments to get here,” recalled Baptiste, who received help from the NGO Casa do Migrante.

Managed by the NGO Missão Paz, Casa do Migrante houses up to 110 people a day, with 30 vacancies filled by Haitians.

Given that Missão Paz has partnerships with more than 500 companies, many immigrants are subsequently inserted into the labor market.

With the help of the NGO, Baptiste began working as an assistant in a chain of restaurants. With the salary he earns, he pays R$400 (US$170) to live in a boarding house and send a little money to his relatives in Haiti.

His goal is to be promoted to waiter and, eventually, to earn a degree in International Relations. On his days off, Baptiste goes back to Casa do Migrante to give basic Portuguese classes to his fellow Haitian newcomers.

“Despite the difficulties, Brazil is a country that offers the best opportunity for us Haitians,” he said.

The number of Haitians served by Missão Paz has increased drastically, from 15 in 2010 to 60 in 2011 to 700 in 2012. In 2013, a total of 1,631 people had been served by early November. Haitians represent nearly half of the total number of immigrants, from 68 different nationalities, served by the entity this year.

“We’re fighting for a new immigration law based on human rights,” said the director of Migration Studies at Missão Paz, Father Paolo Parise.

Pending before the House of Representatives since 2009, Bill 5655 revokes the Alien Statute, in effect since 1980, but there is no estimate as to when it will come up for a vote.

“In the meantime, civil society organizations are taking action,” Parise said. “The Haitians already are in the process of forming a solidarity network in downtown São Paulo.”

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