Reception of migrants in Brazil depends on race and skin color, says Datafolha

Whether a migrant’s country of origin is rich or poor also influences the treatment they receive, say people polled by Datafolha in partnership with Conectas; June is marked by World Refugee Day (20th)

Venezuelanos em Boa Vista, RR (Foto: Marizilda Cruppe/Conectas) Venezuelanos em Boa Vista, RR (Foto: Marizilda Cruppe/Conectas)

Most Brazilians believe that migrants are well received in Brazil and that this is the main reason why they choose the country. The quality of the reception, however, depends mainly on their skin color, race and ethnicity. This is one of the findings of the brand-new survey “Opinions on Migrations”, conducted by the polling firm Datafolha together with Conectas. 

The survey reveals that 62% of Brazilians believe that the good reception in Brazil is a reason that encourages migrants to move here. However, more people believe that migrants from rich countries are well received in Brazil (83%) than those from poor countries (80%). Moreover, 14% of the people interviewed said that Brazil receives migrants from these poorer countries badly or very badly, compared to only 2% who believe that the reception is bad for migrants from rich countries.

This difference in reception, according to the respondents, is motivated primarily by racial issues. One in five respondents said that this is the decisive factor determining how migrants are treated in Brazil, ahead of other reasons such as sexuality, gender identity and religion.

“I believe that there is a common-sense understanding that Brazil is a hospitable, welcoming and generous country. We experienced many exemplary cases of support, campaigns, job offers, inclusion and welcoming of children in schools, and there are many social organizations that work in this field of assistance for the integration of migrants and refugees,” said Rosita Milesi, a migration researcher and director of the Migrations and Human Rights Institute. However, she also acknowledges flaws in the way Brazil receives migrants. “There is no doubt that there is much to lament in our treatment of the migrant population. It is frequent and notable, when we look at reality, to see behaviors and attitudes of xenophobia, racism and rejection of the presence of migrants and refugees. And these reactions are often violent, aggressive and unscrupulous. Brazil carries deep scars of racism, which is mixed with xenophobic feelings, particularly against black migrants and refugees,” she said.

Prejudice and unpreparedness to deal with people who are different are exposed in offenses and lack of opportunities in everyday life, but also in the lack of public policies that take into consideration the characteristics of each migrant, explained Raissa Belintani, coordinator of the Strengthening Democratic Space program at Conectas. She brought up the case of the nearly 300 Afghans who were camped at the airport of Guarulhos, in São Paulo, in late 2022 and early 2023, because they arrived in the country fleeing from the Taliban and were not taken in by the Brazilian government. 

“We need mediators in the fields of culture and health, and in the Federal Police, for example, to help with the treatment of migrants. There is a lack of understanding of certain cultures. Some Afghans didn’t want to go to the shelters because they separated families, men and women, which in their culture is very serious. In healthcare, Afghan women can only be seen by women, especially in gynecology and childbirth, for example. These types of cultural issues need to be assimilated by public servants. One inclusive way of employing migrants is to include them in cultural mediation,” she said.

‘Brazil does not welcome, it only receives’

The president of the Municipal Council of Immigrants of São Paulo (CMI), the lawyer Hortense Mbuyi, summed up the reception of migrants in Brazil in one short sentence: “Brazil does not welcome, it only receives”. As a Congolese refugee, she has lived in the country for almost a decade and says that, even today, she has not had the opportunity to build the life she wants for herself. “The only ones welcoming migrants in São Paulo is civil society. I want to validate my diploma. I want my own salary and buy whatever I want to eat. I want to earn money to reunite my family, because I left my daughters in Africa and I have no way of saving money for a ticket to bring them here,” said Mbuyi. 

She prefers not to look back on the history of political persecution that forced her to flee to Brazil, but instead focus on the needs of the present and her desires for the future: “I fled political persecution in my country and I came here in search of security, but what kind of security do I have?” she asked. She said that she is often invited to give talks and presentations on her story from civil society organizations, but without receiving job offers, and that the same happens with other migrants.

Her term as president of the CMI ended in May, she said, and was marked by a struggle to guarantee basic assistance to migrants in Brazil’s largest city. For a long time, she explained, migrants did not even receive assistance to pay for public transport to attend council meetings, for example. One of the agendas defended by Mbuyi during her administration was the assignment of migrants to public services to carry out cultural mediation with other migrants, in order to facilitate everyone’s access to their rights.

In a city like São Paulo, the challenges of migration are specific and, in many cases, different from what those in Roraima, for example, explained Rosita Milesi, a migration researcher and director of the Migrations and Human Rights Institute. “Many migrants end up in the informal economy. It’s not the best way to work, but it’s a reality. In big cities, they can find more opportunities, either working as cleaners or working for themselves selling different items, making food, sewing and cutting hair etc. These options are limited in small towns and, when people cannot find a steady job or lose their initial job, it is more difficult to come up with the monthly income they need. Situations like this also cause migrants to move in search of opportunities and this affects integration,” she concluded. 

‘They said Venezuelan only come here to steal’

Orladys Enriqueta Hernandez Montero is 45 years old and came to Brazil in 2017. In her home city of Caracas, Venezuela, she had her own clinical examination business and enjoyed a lifestyle similar to middle-class Brazilians: she drove her own car, kept her pantry stocked with fruit and her two children were enrolled in sports classes. But only until the Venezuelan economy took a turn for the worse and she was suddenly unable to buy materials for her business, which she was forced to close. As a result, the household bills became impossible to pay. “There came a point when I had to decide between food or personal items, whether I would buy fruit for my children or a deodorant. I didn’t come to Brazil because I wanted to, it was a decision I was forced to make,” she explained.

Organizing paperwork when arriving in Roraima was a simple process, she said, but other difficulties quickly emerged. She couldn’t speak Portuguese and her first job was as a cleaner, earning R$20 a day. To date, six years after arriving in Brazil, she has not been able to validate her foreign diploma. “I had to start from scratch. At times, I was stigmatized for being Venezuelan. I heard bus drivers saying that Venezuelan women turn tricks, but I never kept silent and always say that people shouldn’t generalize. At other times, people told me that Venezuelans only come to Brazil to steal, or that they go to public health clinics every day to get medication,” she said.

Towards the end of 2022, the organization Cáritas Diocesana in the state of Roraima released a study, in partnership with the REACH Initiative, on the living standards of migrants in the city of Boa Vista. The study found that 44% of the migrant groups interviewed said that at least one of their members experienced discrimination in the city due to their nationality. Discrimination was most common in the workplace (37%) and when looking for work (30%). 

“This could be solved if the public authorities made an effort to show the population how much people from the state have benefited from migration. Just look at the number of jobs created as a result of migration,” said the executive secretary of Cáritas Diocesana in Roraima, Ronildo Rodrigues.

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