Earlier this month I was in Boa Vista, in the northern state of Roraima in Brazil, where around 600 Venezuelan asylum seekers are arriving each day. Many of them are stuck.
When you look at the map you can see why. Venezuela borders Roraima, and many people bus to the border, and then either walk or bus to Boa Vista (nearly 200 kms distance).
Once they get to Boa Vista their options are limited. A city of just 250,000 people, it’s been a struggle to absorb the more than 40,000 people who have arrived since January. While a lot of the Venezuelans want to keep moving further south, the Amazon and expensive transport options stand in their way.
‘If it seems like Brazil is heaven, it’s not’.
Before I went to Boa Vista I met with Sr Rosita Milesi from the Instituto Migrações e Direitos Humanos (IMDH). A nun and legendary advocate working for migrants rights in Brazil, Sister Rosita warned me against rose coloured glasses in Roraima.
She said while Brazil opens its arms to Venezuelans, it is no heaven for them. Thousands have been sleeping rough in public squares for months - including pregnant women, children and elderly people.
A massive humanitarian effort now underway
While Brazil has a very open border policy in general, the country is not used to responding to such a large number of asylum seekers in one area - particularly in the remote north. The situation in Venezuela and the fact that the countries share a border has created an unprecedented situation.
Since February the humanitarian effort in Boa Vista is being coordinated by the Army, with support from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and a network of Brazilian faith based and community organisations. They’re all doing an amazing job with limited resources, and learning as they go.
Despite their best efforts, Boa Vista is a harsh reality for the Venezuelans.
I visited half a dozen shelters where Venezuelan asylum seekers are now living. They’re all at maximum capacity so many people still have to sleep rough on the streets. But at least inside the shelters the people are, for the most part, protected.
Most people I spoke to observed the Army’s role overseeing shelters had made a massive positive difference. And UNHCR is scaling up their logistical support to the shelters as well.
Getting people registered
Venezuelans can register with the Federal Police to seek asylum and temporary residence. Once they are registered they can access all of Brazil’s social services including health and education and work rights. So you can imagine there is quite a strong incentive to legally register (which is good!)
The entire police station in Boa Vista seems to now function as an asylum registration centre. The police even work with interns from UNHCR who staff the front door to give people registration appointments - which can now take a couple of months due to the backlog.
The biggest issue is jobs
Once Venezuelans register they have work rights - but that doesn’t mean they have jobs. There is high unemployment in Boa Vista, and the remoteness of Roraima means it’s very difficult to get to other parts of Brazil for work.
I saw many women have turned to survival sex on the streets of Boa Vista, and their presence is driving down the cost of sex work even further. It is now less than 80 Brazilian Reals (just over USD20) to pay for sex in Boa Vista.
Many Venezuelans are turning to hawking and begging on the streets, and I saw several men with signs pleading for any work they can get. Exploitation in this situation is inevitable.
The Federal Police in Boa Vista told me that 25-30% of the Venezuelans are skilled people. Yet they said there are doctors and nurses and engineers sleeping on the streets. They see this as a huge waste of human potential, and also an opportunity for Brazil if they work out how to get these people into parts of the country where their skills are needed.
In the face of these challenges I think in many countries around the world you’d see politicians calling for borders to be closed and walls to go up. This certainly seems to be the worldwide trend.
And to some extent this is happening in the State of Roraima, with Governor calling for the border with Venezuela to be closed earlier this year.
However the Federal Government has strongly resisted this kind of backlash. Brazil’s President has even called closing the border with Venezuela “unthinkable”.
Instead of going down the walls up/borders closed route, Brazil is experimenting with what it calls “Internalisation”.
If the Venezuelans cannot move around Brazil to find work because of logistical and cost barriers, the government will try to help them.
So far, Federal and State Governments have assisted 600 Venezuelans to voluntarily move from Boa Vista to other parts of the country where they have better options for work and community support.
The internalisation process has been aided by military aircraft and pilots provided by the Army, and local municipalities and civil society groups in participating states have helped to receive the asylum seekers.
The police and army want to scale up internalisation, but logistics are holding them back. They need to arrange more planes. And they need to ensure that there is coordinated shelter and services arranged at the destination end, otherwise they’re just shifting the problems from Boa Vista to elsewhere.
But the process has started, and it offers great promise to help Venezuelans to find work, and the Brazilian economy to benefit from that contribution.
Taking the guesswork out of relocation
Apart from logistical barriers, government officials I spoke to in Boa Vista said they also want to understand more about the labor market access around Brazil, to predict where the Venezuelans would most likely settle well.
This got me thinking about a new initiative I heard about a few days ago.
Stanford’s Immigration Policy Lab has been working with the International Rescue Committee on a machine learning algorithm to predict the best places for refugees to settle, based on their skills and characteristics. The algorithm is currently based on refugee settlement data in the USA and Switzerland.
It is currently being piloted in Switzerland, with some promising results. I’m going there in June so will try to find out more.