BRAZIL: The Haitians are coming, 9th January 2012
by Sue Branford, LAB
“It all began timidly in April 2010, three months after the devastating Haitian earthquake,” Geraldo Sávio Pedrosa, the head of the federal police in the small Amazonian town of Brasileia in the state of Acre, told a Brazilian newspaper. “But since then the influx has grown rapidly.”
In the last four days of 2011, 539 Haitians arrived, bringing the total to 1,250. The sudden surge was apparently caused by rumours that the Brazilian frontier was going to closed to Haitians.
Brasileia, one of the poorest towns in Brazil, has a population of 20,000 and the new arrivals are putting a strain on the town’s resources. Even so, there been few reports of conflict. The town’s inhabitants have been very hospitable, preparing a barbecue in the central square for 800 Haitians on Christmas Eve.
The Haitians played creole music and danced the kompa until late. “We are very happy as there is so much food,” said Brice Innel, a 36-year-old Haitian. “It is important for us to celebrate and raise our spirits, after what we’ve been through.”
The Haitians endured a long and difficult journey to reach Brazil. Many of them travelled first to the Dominican Republic, the country that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, and then flew to Peru.
Coyotes (middlemen) met them at the frontier town of Iñapari, took them into Bolivia to the town of Cobija, which lies beside the Rio Branco, the frontier with Brazil. In the early hours of the morning, when immigration controls are less rigid, the coyotes put the Haitians into small boats or drive them across the bridge to the small Brazilian town of Brasileia. The whole trip is said to cost about US$3,000.
There have been numerous reports of abuse. Lucia Maria Ribeiro de Lima, from the department of racial equality in the Acre state government, has written a report on the way the Haitians have been treated.
According to this report, the coyotes have regularly stolen valuable objects, such as money, cameras, computers and perfume, and have beaten, kicked and even killed Haitians, particularly those without valuables. They have raped women.
In the week before Christmas, the report says, a group of ten Haitians, some dead and others alive, were found tied to each other by the side of a little-used road.
The legal status of the Haitians in Brazil is confused. “The Federal Police does not normally allow any Haitian to come into Brazil without a visa,” said policeman Geraldo Sávio Pedrosa.
“But Haitians have learnt the magical word refúgio. Once they say it, we can’t deport them but have to hand them over to Conare (the National Refugee Council).” The Brazilian government does not consider the Haitians to be refugees, as they are not believed to have suffered political repression, but allows them to stay for humanitarian reasons.
Once they have been seen by Conare, the Haitians are put up in boarding houses, to wait for work permits.
The state government of Acre, which is paying for all this, has started to complain at the expense. And the overcrowding has become dire. “The boarding houses in Brasileia can put up 80 people, but there are 800 people staying in them,” said Aníbal Diniz, a senator for Acre. “It’s difficult to cook for so many people and there are not enough toilets. If we are not careful, the cholera that is plaguing Haiti will appear here.”
Recently, some Haitians have been allowed to leave Brasileia before their work permits arrive, a process that can take three months. Most choose to go to Manaus, the state capital of Amazonas, which is already putting up 3,200 Haitians.
Contrary to most expectations, the Haitians arriving in Brazil are generally well-qualified. “Families have sent their most skilled members so they can get jobs and send money back to Haiti,” said Luiz Paulo Teles Barreto, the president of Conare.
News of the way many of the Haitians have been treated on their marathon journey has dismayed many Brazilians. Jorge Viana, a senator for Acre, is calling on the government to change its policy so that 10,000-30,000 Haitians are allowed to enter the country legally.
“If they could come through the front door, they wouldn’t have to resort to coyotes and could travel to this country safely,” he said. “It would be a great humanitarian gesture.”
Many Brazilians are puzzled as to why so many Haitians are fleeing their country. Andrés Ramirez, the representative in Brazil of the UN Refugee Council, gave his explanation to the Brazilian press.
“The earthquake was terrible but Haiti was very poor before that. Other countries that go through natural disasters, like Chile, recover but Haiti hasn’t managed to,” he said. “Two years after the event, about half a million people are still living in camps, in very precarious conditions.”
Violence, he added, was rife, particularly against women. “The rate of pregnancy in the camps has increased from 4% to 12%, mainly because of the high number of rapes that occur at night, when there is little lighting.” According to Andrés Ramirez, it is the violence against women said, that is leading Brazil and other countries to accept Haitians on humanitarian grounds.
In the grip of the coyotes*
The Haitian Anita Antonio arrived in Brasileia just before Christmas. She had travelled for ten days with her ten month-old son. This is her testimony:
“I left for Brazil with my baby son, Wilson, with just notes from husband about the route he’d followed. He made the journey before me and is now waiting for me in Manaus but he doesn’t know what I have been through to get here.
I am from Jacmel, on the southern coast of Haiti, and I lived for eight years in the Dominican Republic before we decided to go to Brazil. I left on 14th December.
I went to Panama and then I took another plane to Peru. From Lima I took a bus to Cusco, another to Puerto Maldonado and then another to Iñapari, on the frontier with Bolivia.
I stayed in a hotel with 21 other Haitians, all with the same wish: to try life in Brazil.
The hotel owner introduced me to a Bolivian called Tomas. He is the head of a group of coyotes and he charged me US$150 to take me to Brazil.
On the very day I paid, two of Tomas’s men came and took us to a big, old house in Iberia, near the frontier with Bolivia. We stayed there for two days. They frightened us by saying that the frontier was dangerous and we had to wait for the right moment to cross.
Before we left, they asked us for our mobile phones, our laptops and our cameras. They said that they were taking them so the police wouldn’t confiscate them and they would give them back to us in Brazil.
We left on the back of a lorry and drove along an earth road.
Three hours later, eight masked men, armed with pistols, stopped us. They forced us to get out. They made the men lie down and tied their arms behind their backs. They searched us. One of us lost US$1,200. I handed over what I had, which was US$300.
Afterwards, they cut open our cases and took out all our new clothes. One of the Haitians lifted up his head to see what was happening and they hit him hard with a big stick.
Before leaving, they let the air out of the lorry’s tyres. We heard a whistle and two minutes later a group of Bolivians appeared.
We had the impression that they were the same people. They simply took off their masks and returned. I didn’t say anything. I was very scared.
They said they were friends of Tomas’s and they would guide us to the frontier. There was nothing we could do but go with them.
They came in small cars and we went in groups of five to Cobija. When they left me, I had no money, no good clothes and no camera. In desperation, I stopped a Bolivian woman in the street. She let me stay in her house and gave me and my son food.
In the morning, I walked across the bridge and entered Brazil. Now I just want to get documents so I can leave and go to Manaus.”
*This is an edited version of an interview published in the Folha de S. Paulo on 28/12/2011