Immigrants seeking asylum have increased by factor of 34 since start of decade | AGÊNCIA FAPESP

Immigrants seeking asylum have increased by factor of 34 since start of decade Finding comes from research supported by FAPESP resulting in “Refugee Migration Thematic Atlas”. Authors advocate broad discussion of immigration issues by society to tackle xenophobia (UNICAMP’s Rosana Baeninger at launch event for Atlas / photo: Felipe Maeda / Agência FAPESP)

Immigrants seeking asylum have increased by factor of 34 since start of decade

July 18, 2018

By Maria Fernanda Ziegler  |  Agência FAPESP – The current flow of immigrants to Brazil is completely different from that seen at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century. The vast majority of immigrants were Europeans, both at that time and later, after World War Two, when Brazil received many asylum seekers. Today’s flow is diverse and multiethnic. It also contradicts longstanding myths, such as the idea that Brazil is an open country that welcomes all comers.

“Immigration is nonwhite in the twenty-first century. These immigrants are black and often indigenous. Ethnic or racial diversity is significant. The myth of our receptivity, based on European immigration in the previous two centuries, is demolished,” said Professor Rosana Baeninger, a researcher affiliated with the University of Campinas’s Center for Population Studies (NEPO-UNICAMP). 

Twenty-first-century migrant flows were discussed by experts on June 19, 2018, at an event entitled “Refugees and Migrants: Lives in Movement”. It was held in São Paulo, Brazil, by FAPESP and the São Paulo State Assembly Institute (ILP), as the seventh event in the ILP-FAPESP Science & Innovation Cycle. 

The event also featured the launch of Atlas Temático Migração Refugiada (“Refugee Migration Thematic Atlas”), a supplement to Atlas Temático – Observatório das Migrações em São Paulo (“Thematic Atlas – São Paulo Migration Observatory”). This is a survey conducted by researchers at UNICAMP’s São Paulo Migration Observatory, with Baeninger as principal investigator.

According to the data tabulated in the Atlases, Brazil registered 5,352 refugees in the period 2000-16, with 2,582 (48%) of the total residing in São Paulo State. Most refugees received by São Paulo in the period were from Syria (1,030), followed by Democratic Republic of Congo (318), Colombia (241), Mali (91) and Angola (88), among others.

“Many immigrants are shocked when they come up against racism in Brazil. They say they hadn’t expected racial prejudice in Brazil, where black and ‘brown’ [pardo] people are a majority of the population,” said Sylvia Dantas, who took part in the debate. Dantas heads the Center for Intercultural Research & Guidance at the Federal University of São Paulo’s Medical School (Escola Paulista de Medicina, UNIFESP).

The event was attended by FAPESP CEO Carlos Américo Pacheco, ILP CEO Vinicius Schurgelies, and Carlos Bezerra Junior, who chairs São Paulo State Assembly’s Human Rights Committee. 

“We typically interpret only migrant numbers, but behind them are life stories, faces,” Bezerra Junior said in his opening address to the event. “If it’s not possible to think about diversity and cultural richness, think about the economics. Many studies show that in the medium to long run, the better immigrants integrate, the more they contribute, not just in terms of culture and diversity but also in terms of job creation.” 

Baeninger stressed that prejudice in Brazil is linked not just to racism and skin color but also to countries public opinion tends to look down on.

“Not offering society information that prepares it for social policy measures is dangerous because an increase in discrimination and prejudice could lead to explicit xenophobia,” she said.

For Dantas, who researches psychosocial impacts on immigrants, understanding migratory processes means perceiving human aspects. “It’s crucial to understand the psychological implications of migrating or being an asylum seeker in the sense of understanding something that’s part of us and may previously have gone unnoticed,” she said.

The Atlas also shows that the number of annual applications for refugee status received by Brazil rose by a factor of 34 in only seven years, from 966 in 2010 to 33,000 in 2017. The total in the period was 127,068, with Haitians accounting for 52,243 and Venezuelans for 17,865. The Haitians were granted humanitarian visas, and 5,246 were awarded refugee status in the period.

“The more the Northern Hemisphere countries close their borders to refugees, the more these migrants will travel to or through regions like Latin America,” Baeninger said. “What lies ahead isn’t growing numbers of migrants but growing heterogeneity, comprising different nationalities from the global south.”

The rising number of asylum seekers, she added, also reflects the peculiarities of Brazil’s legislation on immigration, under which applying for refugee status is the safest way for migrants from some parts of the world to enter the country legally.

Brazil has a new immigration law that came into force in late 2017 (Law 13,445/17). “The new law is a significant advance in terms of protection for the human rights of immigrants. The previous legislation restricted some of their rights, such as freedom of association and assembly,” said Luís Renato Vedovato, a professor at UNICAMP’s Economics Institute.

To Vedovato, although the new law represents progress, it must be implemented via policy measures regarding migrants, refugees and stateless or displaced persons. “All this requires participation by civil servants and subnational legislators. It’s worth noting that the new law doesn’t reduce protection for refugees, who continue to be protected by the 1997 law. In addition, it includes significant advances for migrants in general,” he said.


Another issue raised in the discussion was that Brazil is not always the final destination for migrants and refugees. One example is migration by Haitians. The flow of immigrants from Haiti increased after the 2010 earthquake, when some 230,000 people died and more than 1 million were made homeless. Another is the closing of US borders, which often makes Brazil a stopover for migrants en route to other countries.

“We need to think about policies based on interculturality rather than assimilation,” Baeninger said. “These migrants don’t necessarily see Brazil as their final destination. Smaller towns must also be prepared to receive migrants who have no historical roots in this country. This is particularly relevant in the case of refugees.”

According to Atlas Temático Migração Refugiada, migrant flows do not only affect major cities such as São Paulo. Between 2000 and 2016, 274 of Brazil’s 5,570 municipalities registered at least one refugee from Syria, DR Congo, Nigeria, Colombia and Lebanon, and more recently from Cuba and Venezuela.

In São Paulo City

Although more than half of Brazil’s towns and cities receive immigrants, its largest city, São Paulo, is still the main gateway into the country, except for Venezuelans and others who make a land border crossing.

“We also need to take into account the rising unemployment rate since 2014 in other parts of Brazil, as this has attracted migrants to São Paulo,” said Lúcia Machado Bógus, a researcher with the São Paulo Major City Observatory at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP).

According to research by the São Paulo Major City Observatory, migrant flows currently arrive in the downtown area of São Paulo City, with relatively large numbers taking up residence in the city’s northern and eastern areas.

“Most of these migrants look for a place to live in these poorer areas of the city,” Bógus said. “They go to the city center first because that’s where the aid organizations for migrants and refugees are based. They then settle in the low-income suburbs.”


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