Fleeing Through the Amazon: Venezuelan Refugees in Boa Vista, Brazil

banana plant watercolor picture

Boa Vista, a city forgotten in the corner of Brazil. Engulfed by the Amazon and with temperatures hovering around 30 degrees Celsius year round. But this Amazonian city has become a number one destination. That is, it is now the the epicenter of the arrival of Venezuelan refugees in Brazil.

They come by bus or driving and finish their route on foot. Most carrying everything they have with them and, as with many refugees around the world, leaving behind desperately unlivable lives and bearing the burden of creating a new one from scratch.

In total, it is believed that two million Venezuelans have left their country in the last two decades. Though it was since 2016 when mass forced migration of Venezuelans exploded.

Skip to the interview …

Why Venezuelans?

Nowadays, there prevails a stalemate between Nicolás Maduro’s (the President) government and well… the rest of the world. Maduro blames imperialist interference of the US and European countries for the ongoing economic crisis since 2014. One that worsens with the economic sanctions that have been imposed on the country due to the lack of a “democratic government.”

The Venezuelan government became increasingly desperate, stamping down on opposition, and approaching now their 3rd elections this year (2018). Many doubt the legitimacy of the elections, believing it to be an excuse to dig their claws in further to authority.

Map of Venezuela route to Boa Vista
Venezuelan boarder with Brazil and route to Boa Vista

The Difficult Venezuelan Reality

As a result, Venezuela has empty food stores, severe lack of medicines and hyperinflation. Citizens are working for nothing in relation to steep inflation. They spend everything on the scarce supplies that are left. A food crisis in a country that suffers from neither droughts nor “civil war.”

Though Brazil has not yet received the same pressure as neighboring Colombia, who has born brute of the majority of Venezuelan refugees, the state of Roraima, with Boa Vista as capital is asking for federal help.

There have been cases of violence erupting between the local Brazilians and Venezuelans. This year there were attacks on refugee settlements in the state of Roraima, especially the boarder town of Pacaraima, resulting in assailants burning the belongings and shelters of Venezuelans.

Nowadays, the Brazilian army has sent soldiers to the city of Boa Vista as well as introduced the programa de interiorização, which seeks to take a select number of Venezuelans to other Brazilian cities.

Venezuelans seem to have hopped from one “war zone” to another and the humidity of the Amazon rain-forest gives no respite.

In this interview we speak with researcher and humanitarian aid worker, Carla Coelho who has been working and researching in Boa Vista. Our interview seeks to shed light on the situation on a human level and what we can expect will or should be done in the future.

Introduction to our interviewee, Carla Coelho:

I have a sociology background with a focus mostly on quantitative applied research and humanitarian crisis. My experience is working mostly in forced migration context: nearly 1 year in Niger working on the context of displaced population due to the Boko Haram related violence in the boarder with Nigeria and Chad, and in Jordan remotely assessing projects implemented in Syria in support of humanitarian needs of population in moderate-opposition held areas.

I’m driven both by my interest on humanitarian values and by my interest in technical aspects of information and data management.    

Venezuela a Humanitarian Crisis

Can you tell us a little bit about what you experienced working with the refugees in Boa Vista?

The experience was extremely positive for me because – given I only had experience working in contexts in which I was not in direct contact with my population of interest (both in Niger and in Jordan – working with the Syrian context – I did not have direct contact with the population I was “working” with due to security constraints). In this sense, I was able to share experiences with the Venezuelan population in Boa Vista, exchange with them and have a better feel of their reality living in Brazil.

I worked in Boa Vista for 4 months implementing an information management project that had as purpose to inform the large humanitarian community (both working in place both external – strategic a programming level) about the situation of Venezuelans in Roraima and hopefully support them in better designing projects and interventions that benefit this population and the host community as we call them (locals from Roraima).

We focused both on Venezuelans living inside shelters managed by UN Agencies with the support of the Brazilian army (in this case we used mostly data collected during their registration upon arrival in sites – mostly demographics – and some information regarding the sites – e.g planned capacity and # of latrines inside – in order to assess the adequacy of living conditions), and Venezuelans living outside of shelter (in rented apartments or granted places or living in the streets.

In the former case, we focused more on understanding their difficulties in accessing local services and livelihood activities and on the nature of their relationship with the local community.

In terms of how this compares to the refugee crisis in Europe and in the Mediterranean… I believe the exposure to risks during the journey is more important for those traveling to Europe. For example, there hasn’t been any report of Venezuelans having lost their lives in leaving their country (although some deaths have been reported of Venezuelans migrating and already living outside of their country, but not clear to say how this is linked to their vulnerable condition as migrants or refugees).

In your opinion, how does it compare other refugee crisis in Europe and the Mediterranean at large, for instance?

In terms of absolute numbers, Europe still receives more migrants and refugees although the case of Venezuela is increasing every day so this could become less of a difference. The profile of the population is to some extent similar in the sense where it is mostly made up of men between at working age and less children (although the number or children arriving seems to be increasing in the case of Roraima).

Another similarity is the difficulty to fully insert to matter into the pre-existing international definitions of “humanitarian crisis” and clearly distinguish economic migrants from refugees. In the case of Venezuela, the legal framework that has been more important in defining the response is the Declaration of Cartagena (valid in the Latin American continent), which expands the concept of what is a refugee:

In Venezuela these refugees are not only people that are directly exposed to risks, but are living in contexts in which human rights are systematically violated.

This is very positive for the population of concern, in the sense that “yes” there could be economic factors involved in this mass migration, but this is no reason to deprive this population from support given their vulnerability.

Also, the high level of mass migration in such little length of time is similar to that of conflict related migration so there certainly is a larger phenomenon that is pushing these people to move, so to some extent a “forced migration” worth giving the needed attention to.

Venezuelan Refugees in Boa Vista
Venezuelanos (as) em Boa Vista: Vulnerabilidade da população fora dos abrigos, image by REACH in partnership with UNHCR.

From the people you met, what did they tell you about how they arrived in Brazil? How risky is the trip?

Most people coming to Brazil come from nearby states of Venezuela (South and Northeast of the country), and they mostly take a bus or drive until the border city of Pacaraima or the city of Boa Vista, capital of the state of Roraima. Many even walk, mostly upon arrival to Pacaraima due to the lack of resources to continue their journey by motorized vehicles (bus, taxi…).

Most risks reportedly faced throughout the journey would occur during the journey within Venezuela and these are mostly theft, either by thieves or by state officers themselves (such as police or boarder officers).

Many people travel carrying a considerable amount of the resources they have so their fear is high considering the consequences of this to them. These incidents were reported to occur (expected to occur) in checkpoints or in cities along the way that are known for the presence of gangs that work in contraband.

“There is still a lack of information regarding some bad coping strategies that could be used by these displaced after crossing the border with the purpose to acquire needed resources to continue their movement, but this could include skipping meals, selling assets or resorting to risky activities for money (such as prostitution) or even modern forms of “slave” work.”

But as I said before there is little reliable data on this and this phenomenon would concern a less numerous and more vulnerable group.

In general, how did the Venezuelans make the decision to leave their country?

The decision making process varies, mainly depending on people’s socioeconomic conditions, among other factors that influence this. 

According to our results, the main push factors reported by Venezuelans living out side of shelters in Boa Vista (closest capital of Brazil to the northern Venezuela-Brazil border) are:

  1. Inflation: (including its direct consequences such as lack of liquidity and unemployment)
  2. Lack of food: this means both people lack resources to buy staple goods and there is an overall lack of food items to purchase in local markets.  
  3. Lack of medicine and access to health care: this is one of the important consequences of the economic crisis leading people to leave their homes. This can be either by lack of medication needed by people with chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertensions etc. Another difficulty is the access to public health services, as hospital often lack basic medical supply such as gloves and needles and alternative private services are off limits to those that lack financial resources.

So, we can see that the decision-making depends on what are the core trigger factors that lead to departure (need of a particular medicine etc.).

“But we observe that there is a long preparation process in this forced displacement context in which individuals often take the time to save money prior to departure, and often heads of households (both male and females) leave alone first, with the purpose of acquiring needed conditions to bring other family members with them.”

How long did you spend in Boa Vista and what struck you the most about working there?

I spent a total of 4 months in Boa Vista – just the time to launch the project and pass it on to colleagues.

I would say that what struck me the most about working there was how much the Venezuelan population migrating to Brazil really loves their country. The reasons for leaving were actually that the situation there was no longer sustainable; otherwise they would not have left. This was to me very impressive to see. This population left leaving a lot behind and felt a sorrow for leaving their country.

Roraima-Boa Vista, Venezuelan Refugee Crisis
Roraima, Montanhas by March Riera at Pixabay under Creative Commons License CC BY 2.0.

What kind of support and aid is offered to arriving migrants? 

Does it come from local, national or international sources?

Different types of support are offered to Venezuelans arriving in Boa Vista, from a variety of international, national and local actors, the majority dating back to mid-2017 when there was a significant increase of new-arrivals.

International actors, including UN agencies such as the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency), IOM (International Organization for Migration), UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) and UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) have been focused on supporting Venezuelans in their documentation process.

“This includes acquiring the needed legal papers to be in Brazil and access services and work opportunities. As well as providing shelter to the most vulnerable and supporting a limited number (given the logistic difficulty to increase this #) to continue their journey towards other states in Brazil (Programa de Interiorização).”

This is done with the support of the Brazilian army – actors in charge of the humanitarian response at a national level.

Other local NGOs distribute food (although this is less and less common), provide shelter, Portuguese classes, support in preparing CVs and accessing work etc… So basically a mix of both local, national and international sources.

How is the relationship between the refugees and the local population?

While I was there, it was quite ambiguous in the sense that although most Venezuelans we interviewed reported that the relationship was cordial with many cases of demonstration of generosity and solidarity (through spontaneous distribution of food and non-food items etc). But this was also reported to be changing more and more, with more of a distant coexistence marked by a sort of suspicion of Brazilian towards Venezuelans. 

This distancing was supposedly reinforced by the increase of new-arrivals, but also from what was told out of a lack of “interaction space” between the two communities that shared less and less common spaces in which preconceived prejudice could be dismantled.

When the relationship was reported to be negative, this mostly involved verbal harassment (Brazilian towards Venezuelans) and some other forms of intimidation in public spaces. 

From what I could observe a very important factor contributing to decrease the quality of the relationship between the two communities is the rhetoric’s (discourse) on the migration “crisis”. At a national level we see a strong increase in right wing discourse and this has highly affected the state of Roraima (where political parties in power are right wing, extreme even). This has highly affected the local populations perception of Venezuelans – in a negative way.

A lot is said on how criminality has increased. As a fact it has increased and as a fact many witness a considerable amount of petty crime committed by Venezuelans (in large majority of cases out of complete lack of alternative). But it is important to note that while it is said that the criminality rate has nearly doubled, an infamous part of these crimes are committed by Venezuelan nationals and this is never mentioned. So it is more of a “discourse” that is being built around the subject of Venezuelan refugees and migrants that is influencing the relationship between the two communities.

In your research, some of the results showed that a principal difficulty facing women refugees was exploitation, (sexual, labour and emotional) due to working in informal capacity.

What could be done to better integrate the immigrant population and how?

From our interviews many Venezuelans themselves suggested that there should be a strong “communication” strategy to confront stigmatization and prejudice against Venezuelans. This could have a very good influence in assuring Venezuelans are well accepted by the local community. 

Other activities could be training courses that work to promote professional insertion, not exclusively of Venezuelans but of the two communities – clearly the two communities have different profiles and needs, but actions contemplating both communities at once could be good to overcome a sense of competition that is growing in which Brazilians feel disregarded by the State that is giving more and more attention to Venezuelans.  

Other than this, social and cultural activities promoting traditions of Brazilians and Venezuelans would be an excellent way to generate integration. I was able to witness a short demonstration of street dancing done by Venezuelans during a typically local fest (Festa Junina), during which many people came together to watch. This street dancing (hip hop) is quite unusual to see in Boa Vista and the locals were really interested and fascinated. Small moments like these could have a great impact in generating well being to both communities from what I observed (no actual data to support this, but more of a feeling/perception).

What else would you like people to know about your experience and the reality of millions of displaced Venezuelans?

Well from my experience I would say is that Venezuelans have an extremely rich culture, great culinary delights… definitely a population worth getting to know!

About the displaced… it is important to keep in mind that we are talking about a forced migration despite the “economic” factor behind the displacement can lead people to believe otherwise. Those that are leaving clearly demonstrate that in their country of origin, the political and social turmoil has reached a point in which the population is really suffering – lack of food and medication to lead a healthy and dignified life. This is clearly what the large numbers of people leaving is showing us.

So maybe we should rethink the way we talk about the subject, it is not a “migration” crisis… it is a social and humanitarian crisis. Migration is now often linked to the word crisis, which should not be the case. The “crisis” qualifier is misplaced here. Now regarding the new arrivals in Brazil and most specifically in Roraima state….

This could and should be seen as an opportunity, to increase economic dynamics of a very isolated and forgotten state of Brazil… of social exchange with locals being expose to a new culture, new language. We just have to change our discourse and the lenses we are currently using to look into the current state of affairs.

Nicolás Maduro: Música by Eneas De Troya on flickr under Creative Commons License CC BY 2.0. Nicolás Maduro replaced Hugo Chávez as Venezuela’s president, after Chavéz’ death in 2013.

The published report and findings of the work carried out by Carla and her team in Boa Vista can be found in the two links below. If you want to get in contact with Carla: carla.coelho@reach-initiative.org   

The two City Overview’s of Boa Vista: Venezuelan asylum seekers and migrants living outside of shelters, Boa Vista city

  1. http://www.reachresourcecentre.info/system/files/resource-documents/reach_bra_city_overview_july_2018_eng_0.pdf
  2. http://www.reachresourcecentre.info/system/files/resource-documents/reach_bra_city_wide_situation_overview_round1_15082018_0.pdf

You may be interested in our article on why Developing Countries like Brazil can be a Key to the Refugee crisis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.