Haitian immigrants in Brazil: NGO warns of “humanitarian emergency” as visions of “Brazilian Dream” turn into the disillusionment of inhumane living conditions

"Invisible Crisis": Haitians in Brazil
“Invisible Crisis”: Haitians in Brazil

Note from BW of Brazil: It’s been about 3 and a half years since an a huge earthquake devastated Haiti. Since then, Haitians have been caught up in deceptive bureaucracy, unfulfilled promises and disregard by the international community. In response to this catastrophe, many Haitians have sought to improve their lives by taking huge risks and migrating to other countries. Experiences with conflict and prejudice with neighboring Dominican Republic are well-documented as well as an often times less than gratifying experience in the United States. So, what does Brazil have to do with this picture?

Haitians in front the Ministry of Work and Jobs
Haitians in front the Ministry of Work and Jobs

Well first, since the overthrow of democratically-elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, about 2,000 Brazilian troops have been stationed in Haiti on a UN mission that many have defined as an occupation.  Then, after the earthquake, many Haitians, lured by Brazil’s booming economy and preparations for the 2014 World Cup began to migrate to Brazil in search of work and better lives. While some have been able to find success, the stories continue to pile up about the “dream deferred” that many Haitians have experienced since arriving in Brazilian territory. There have been deportations, huge fees and issues of legalities as many Haitians live in limbo while Brazilian authorities grapple with how to deal with the sudden influx from the Caribbean island. Below is a report that based on research done by an NGO that spoke with many Haitians about their experiences in Brazil. How has it been, you ask? Well consider this: what does it tell you when people leave a country that was devastated by a natural disaster ask themselves if they made the right decision? Read on…

Brazil hides humanitarian emergency in Acre

‘Refugee’ camp houses over 800 Haitians in inhumane conditions. For the NGO, Conectas, Brazil glosses over a crisis and must articulate an urgent solution within the UN and the OAS

The Brazilian government has for months made use of a play on words – between migration and shelter – to minimize the humanitarian crisis going on in the city of Brasiléia (state of Acre), on the border with Bolivia, 240 km (149 miles) southwest of the state capital, Rio Branco.

Troubling is the word that minimally defines the situation of Haitians flocking everyday to Brazil in search of better conditions of life and work. Many of them have training, but can’t find jobs in their country. They dream of exercising the profession that they studied in the new land.

Brazil: Brasiléia, Acre
Brazil: Brasiléia, Acre

For now they are just dreams because, as reported by News Agency of Acre, teachers, nursing technicians, mechanics, accountants, educators, some with fluent English, find work blowing up stones, rocks drilling, construction, street sweeping, as street sweepers, plucking chickens, carrying goods and selling crafts, among other occupations. But they do not complain, good or bad, they manage to work and plan to bring their families.

This year alone, about 3,000 Haitians have entered Brazil in the small town of Brasiléia of 20,000 inhabitants in the state of Acre, near the border with Bolivia. Since the 2010 earthquake, it is estimated that 6,000 Haitians have entered Brazil in the state of Acre. Most arrive illegally, about 40 per day, with the support of paid middlemen.

Haitians in praça Hugo Poli in Brasiléia, Acre. In 2012, Brazil decided to close its borders to Haitians
Haitians in praça Hugo Poli in Brasiléia, Acre. In 2012, Brazil decided to close its borders to Haitians

A 2012 resolution by Conselho Nacional de Imigração (National Immigration Council or CNIg), created a special scheme for granting work visas to Haitians.The measure, taken after thousands of Haitians risked their lives on long voyages to enter Brazil through borders in the north, authorized the issuing of 1,200 visas to immigrants monthly by the Brazilian Embassy in Haiti.

With this, the government hoped to control the flow of migrants and encourage the arrival of Haitians by plane. However, the number of visas proved to be much lower than the demand: in one 15 day period between March and April of this year, 1,300 Haitians crossed the border in Acre, a number greater than the annual quota of visas given at the embassy.

Immigrants in Brasiléia say that, besides the long wait to schedule interviews to get the visa in Port au Prince, bureaucracy discourages the procedure. Thus, although more expensive, entering through the Amazon appeared to be a more attractive alternative – even though this trip required crossing through other countries (Ecuador, Peru, and in some cases also Bolivia) and abiding by middlemen.

Haitians in the state of Acre
Haitians in the state of Acre

After the resolution of the CNIg federal police closed the borders in the Amazon, blocking the entry of Haitians without visas. However, the government eventually decided to reopen them and also issue visas at the border, beyond quota embassy. After promising to grant humanitarian visas to 1,200 Haitians migrants per year, the Brazilian government withdrew this decision in April of 2013, according to the NGO Conectas. There remained only the inclination to the risk of a 15-day journey, through the Dominican Republic, Panama and Peru, to reach the border and to the possibility, already on Brazilian soil, to manage to get permission to work.

Leaving an earthquake-ravaged Haiti and with 80% of the population living below the poverty line was the solution found by Vilsaint Letesse, interviewed by the News Agency of Acre. Posessing a degree in Pedagogy, he left his wife and daughter back in January 2012. He got a job in a hydroelectric plant of Santo Antônio in the state of Rondônia. His job is to blow up rocks. A year later, he managed to bring his wife and plans to send for his daughter, who was left in the care of his grandmother. The philosophy is that any fixed job is better than having no perspective.

Although some Haitians have been fortunate in receiving permanent residency, others haven't been a s lucky
Although some Haitians have been fortunate in receiving permanent residency, others haven’t been a s lucky

Even leaving Brasiléia and getting a job, immigrants still have to wait in a government shelter for permission to work in Brazil. Ceded by the State Government, the space has a capacity for 200 people, but now has more than 800, which meant that the government of Acre would enact a state of social emergency. The NGO Conectas denounces an imminent humanitarian crisis in this “refugee camp.” Besides Haitians, the vast majority, there is no record of Dominican and Senegalese migrants and even a Bangladeshi.

João Paulo Charleaux, communication coordinator of Conectas, who was on the scene, says Brazil is glossing over an international crisis and needs to articulate a solution within the UN (United Nations) and OAS (Organization of American States).

The more than 800 migrants divide only five toilets (latrines) and 10 showers with sewage running out in the open and people huddled in a space of 200 square meters, with a tin roof and plastic sheeting serving as a divider and heat up to 40 degrees (celsius or 100 degrees fahrenheit).

Haitians forced to live in sub-par conditions that many compare to the earthquake ravished Haiti they left behind
Forced to live in sub-par conditions that many compare to earthquake ravished Haiti they left behind

“It’s unhealthy, even inhumane. Haitians spend the night stacked on each other, in scorching heat, accommodated on pieces of foam that were once small mats, in the middle of bags, shoes and other personal belongings. The area is where the latrines are flooded by bad-smelling water, you don’t see soap for washing hands and almost everyone we talked with complain of abdominal pain and diarrhea. Many have spent months in this condition,” said João Paulo Charleaux, communication coordinator Conectas, who was at the scene.

Many of them are being tended to in a small hospital in Brasiléia with crises of diarrhea and respiratory problems. At the time of distribution of food there is a common occurrence of riots, contained with the total unpreparedness of government workers given the task of organizing the shelter. For the director of Conectas, they don’t have prior experience in managing humanitarian issues and don’t have a translator. But good will and dedication are not enough.

“This is a regional issue, involving at least five countries: Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Haiti. We request the holding of a hearing at the Comissão Interamericana de Direitos Humanos da OEA (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS ((Organization of American States)) and are sending our findings to two independent rapporteurs of the UN, one for migrants and another designated to monitor the situation of human rights in Haiti,” says Charleaux.

Conectas conducted a mission in Brasiléia from the 4th to the 6th of August, where it recorded 20 interviews with camp residents, conducted by the invited Conectas researcher Gabrielle Apollon, in the Creole language spoken by Haitians. Gabrielle had previously made 27 other interviews with Haitians who managed to get to São Paulo, totaling over 20 hours of recorded statements. In the stories, they told how they came to Brazil after spending up to US$4,000 in payments to middlemen in the journey from Haiti.

Haitians also say that the granting of a ‘visto humanitário (humanitarian visa)’ at the Embassy of Brazil in Porto Príncipe (Port au Prince) does not work as promised – middlemen charge fees, there is no clear information on the procedures, it is difficult to get service and they are asked to for resumes to favor what one calls “skilled immigration” to Brazil, without into account precisely the “humanitarian” character that this visa should have, according to the Brazilian government itself.

“I can say that what we experience here in Brasiléia is not for a human being. They put us back in the Haiti that we had after the earthquake: the same dirt, the same type of shelter, water, food. This hurts me and scares me. I knew the way here would be hard, because you’re dealing with criminals, but to get here in Brazil, being in such a place is unbelievable,” said Haitian Osanto Georges, 19.

Vazamento de esgoto (Leaking sewage), trailer (only permanent structure of service), latrina (toilets), chuveiros (showers), alojamento principal (main housing), abrigo (shelter), refeitório (refectory)
Vazamento de esgoto (Leaking sewage), trailer (only permanent structure of service), latrina (toilets), chuveiros (showers), alojamento principal (main housing), abrigo (shelter), refeitório (refectory)

For the “Brazilian dream”, almost an “El Dorado” for young Haitians of his age, as he explains, Osanto left behind his internship and degree in information technology. His discourse differs greatly from the others: on the robberies, the fees, the excesses of the authorities and coyotes (people smugglers) that he encountered along the way, only resignation, as if it were all part of the script, for Brazilians, especially those who coordinate the shelter, relentless critiques. “The administration itself does not know who comes and who goes. These conditions are not normal, they are not acceptable. It’s all a mess,” he sighs.

In the crowded camp, fights to form lines are constant. “On the day we arrived, the police drew firearms to control a disturbance. It is evident that this is a task too complex to be managed as it is being. The situation in the field is similar in many respects to what I myself saw when I was in Haiti shortly after the earthquake in 2010.

Women suffer more

Haitian women in Brazil
Haitian women in Brazil

“If we knew that the situation here would be this we would not have come.” The saleswoman Charles Marie Joseph, 31, does not hide her frustration of having left the Dominican Republic and her two children to live in a shelter in Brasiléia. “We thought things would get better when we arrived. We’re not used to it,” he says. “God willing, I will leave tomorrow.” Charles Marie complains mostly about the lack of separation between men and women in the shelter. There are some who were accompanied by their husbands, but others, like her, have to cope alone with the lack of privacy. The feeling is mutual: the story of Charles Marie was interrupted by another woman who joined the conversation to strengthen her argument. “Sometimes it is difficult to change clothes, put on some pants. You have to cover yourself under the sheets. And if you go to the shower, your clothes will be dirty before you even put them out,” says the friend indignantly.

With child. And nothing else.

Haitian revealed their struggle to survive in Brazil to the NGO Conectas
Haitian women revealed their struggle to survive in Brazil to the NGO Conectas

“If I knew that this here was like this, I would have stayed in Haiti. I would try to somehow get a visa for my wife and my son. We would not have come to this camp. We are not used to things like this,” says one of the Haitians, while his wife takes care of the child, a few steps away. They prefer not to be identified, especially for being with an undocumented. “On the road, in Lima, they stole my suitcase with all my documents inside. We were sitting eating. They stole my son’s birth certificate, my own birth certificate and my marriage certificate. I was only able to continue the journey because I still had my passport. I’m very worried because I have no way to recover it and don’t know what to do when they ask me for these documents here in Brazil,” she says.

High cost, high risk

For Michelle Brenelus, the cost of coming to Brazil was high and still hasn't paid off
For Michelle Brenelus, the cost of coming to Brazil was high and still hasn’t paid off

There were 14 days of travel for the vendor Michelle Brenelus, 26, who came in the company of five other women. In Gonaives she left two children, a girl and a boy, who must begin classes in October. “I still cannot send a penny,” she worries. Maybe that’s why she keeps noted in memory every coin that has been subtracted along the route: US$2,000 to middlemen who organized the trip, US$500 to Peruvian police, US$450 dollars to an agency in Quito (Equador), US$200 in Lima (Peru), US$250 in Cuzco (Peru) and US$120 in Maldonado (Uruguay). The family sent US$130 when she arrived in Brazil. “This is not the only money they stole from me,” she says. She still doesn’t know if the investment was worth it, but she is certain that it was the only way out. “There was no other place I could go. I tried the American embassy, but they rejected my application in December last year. Everyone was coming to Brazil this way, so I came too.” Michelle has managed to get a CPF and the Carteira de Trabalho (Work Card) and hopes to soon get a job somewhere away from Brasiléia. “Our journey is not over here. We still have way to go.”

Organization members also interviewed hospital doctors in Brasiléia, police, members of the Ministério Público Federal and of the Conselho Tutelar (Federal Protection Council) and governmental authorities in Rio Branco, and several townspeople of Acre. The organization also twice used the Lei de Acesso à Informação (Access to Information Act) to obtain from various ministries in Brasília (nation’s capital), accurate information about the situation. In most cases, the font names are omitted obeying the requests of civil servants who do not have authorization to speak on behalf of the organizations for which they work.

“90% Have diarrhea”

Nearly all Haitians interviewed by Conectas between 4 and August 6 complained of abdominal pain and diarrhea. Conectas visited the Raimundo Chaar Hospital that has 46 beds, and is responsible for meeting urgent and emergency cases in the city. According to team members, there have been outbreaks of diarrhea that led 40 Haitians to the emergency room at once. One of the staff explained that the hospital receives no additional resources to cope with the influx of Haitians. “Politicians are treating this here as if it were a matter of diplomacy, but in the meantime, every day, we are importing misery and disease without being able to handle it,” he said, revealing part of the disturbing prejudice and repulsion in the city. The information is confirmed by physicians, who say they are amazed with the influx of new patients. According to them, they see on average 4 Haitians a day but on the day that the hospital received Conectas, there were 10 treatments of Haitians only in the morning. The consultation is done without the aid of translators, and according to sources on loaction, “90% of the cases are diarrhea and 10% are of respiratory diseases.” The people responsible for care said they had never entered the field and were surprised with the information about the hygiene conditions on the site.

“It will get worse”

According to the field coordinator, Damião Borges, of the Government of the State of Acre, the field has received 40 new Haitians per day, although the last structural changes have occurred four months ago. He says that increasing the number of newcomers, combined with decreasing number of vacancies by firms that previously looked for workers in the field, is creating social chaos for the Haitians themselves in Brazil. “This must stop because our resources are exhausted. The state has a debt of R$700,000 (US$288,000) with the company that provides food and shelter and the deadline to pay ends on August 15. We urgently need the Federal Government to help us. Here was put R$4.5 (US$1.848) million from the State Government and R$2 million (US$821,000) by the Federal Government, in 2 years and 8 months. But the weight, really, being carried, is by the city of Brasiléia. This can not be run by a small and modest town like this,” he said. Conectas was informed, during the mission, that it has been 3 months with no transfer of funds from the Federal Government for the State of Acre for the care of Haitian migrants. More seriously, there is no provision for new shipments.

Complaints about water and food

The largest number of complaints received in the field is in regard to water quality and food consumed. The site has a single point of distribution of drinking water, an industrial filter, with three taps. For the administration, the abdominal pains are caused by the effect of chlorine, that “causes diarrhea for three days in people that have many amoebas in the body.” Another negative aspect mentioned is the poor quality of food, which, for the managers of the service, has to do with the difference in taste and eating habits among Brazilians and Haitians. Although the reported problems are due to this, little is attempted to amend the menu. Meals are distributed in tins foil while the Military Police stand guard next to the row of more than 800 people. The reports of fighting in the lines are frequent.

Unaccompanied and undocumented children

Another site visited by Conectas was Conselho Tutelar of Brasiléia, where there were 20 cases of Haitian children and teenagers undocumented or separated from their parents. But, on the 7th of August, when the Conectas mission had returned to Rio Branco, five Haitian children arrived at the camp. “We are far beyond our modest capabilities. This, to me, is the worst moment since Haitians began arriving,” said a member of the Guardian Council. Despite the increased workload, there has been, according to the source, no additional resources, material structure or employees since the beginning of the crisis. Altogether, five counselors work on site, serving all issues relating to children and adolescents in the city. “Suddenly, a small town like this has to deal with a phenomenon of this size without even receiving any preparation,” he added. Among Haitians, there are numerous reports of theft of documents – among many other things – on the way to coming to Brazil.

Local community

“Brasiléia is a powder keg that could explode at any moment. Residents cannot deal with this situation anymore. This can develop into actions of hostility,” said an authority of the State of Acre to Conectas in Rio Branco. The statement reflects the state of mind of the residents of this small town of only 20,000 inhabitants. Although residents show understanding and solidarity with Haitians, the manifestations of fatigue and discontent are increasingly frequent. The camp residents compete for jobs with locals at clinics, supermarkets, bakeries, banks, pharmacies, post offices and other public services.


One of the findings is the apparent disproportion between the number of employees and the number of residents in the camp. Over three days, only 2 employees worked full-time in the camp, directly serving the 832 Haitians in a small trailer with a computer and a fan. Despite their full dedication, the staff is local, do not speak the language of the Haitians and have not received the necessary training or have prior experience in managing humanitarian issues applied in this complex context to the rationale of a small town to the attendance of these events. Good will and dedication are not enough. Despite the constant trips to the location by members of the State of Acre, based in Rio Branco, it is urgently necessary to establish a body of workers familiar with humanitarian crises to manage the field.


The field and the hospital do not have a translator at their disposal. The few employees try to speak Spanish, but the Haitians, in the vast majority of cases, speak only Creole. The instructions to form lines or deliver documents are shouted, which increases the uncertainty and anxiety of Haitians, who often congregate and fight for space in front of the small trailer of the Military Police, which serves as the office of the camp administration. There is no on-site directory in the field or a loud speaker. The few signs in Creole are handwritten. In the field, there are no billboards about STD/AIDS or hygiene, or any booklets on rights or any other communicational material with guidance to newcomers.

Shelter vs. Humanitarian Refuge

All camp residents are officially asylum seekers, under the guidance of the government itself, which, after 6 months of the analysis of applications, extended by another six months, denies the granting of refuge to all Haitians.

This legal arrangement, framed in a policy Brazil calls “visto humanitário (humanitarian visa)”, prevents the deportation of Haitians who come to the country, since the law prohibits the deportation of asylum seekers during the processing of the application. The improvisation, however, is causing a major humanitarian crisis – caused by a situation of internal violence, followed by various natural disasters, the latest being an earthquake responsible for the deaths of 220,000 people in Haiti – being treated as a simple migration problem in Brazil. “The main result is an ad hoc, amateurish and uncoordinated approach, which overloads the small municipality of Brasiléia and its population, when in fact it should be managed by specialists in humanitarian emergencies of such complexity. From the humanitarian point of view, the question of the name of the visa gives itself is now less urgent than the brutal conditions faced in the field. This humanitarian visa policy is anything but humanitarian,” said Charleaux.

Book: Haiti por si - a reconquista da independência roubada (Haiti by Itself: A Reconquest of a Stolen Independence)
Book: Haiti por si – a reconquista da independência roubada (Haiti by Itself: A Reconquest of a Stolen Independence)

With a foreword by Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Adital launched in 2013 the book Haiti por si: a reconquista da independência roubada (Haiti by itself: the regaining of a stolen independence). The publication redeems the history of the poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean, and tries to show that Haitians themselves can be protagonists in the reconstruction of the country in areas such as food sovereignty, economy, culture and participative democracy. To purchase the book (in Portuguese) go here.

Source: Conectas, Opera Mundi, Conectas (2), BBC Brasil

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.


  1. Hi there everybody, here every person is sharing such know-how, therefore it’s pleasant to
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  2. I don’t even know the way I ended up here, but I believed this publish was good.
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    in the event you aren’t already. Cheers!

  3. Hello,
    I’m brazilian from Belo Horizonte, living in New York.
    I’m going to my home town in february and would like to know if you know of any areas where the Haitians are staying in Belo Horizonte. I would like to visit and see if I can help with anything.
    Wish you all a New Year of peace.

  4. Please, Lele Luiza, if you can afford, don’t forget to help the many brazilians that are homeless in your city, many of them are from the countryside or from the northeast and they can’t get a job. I don’t mean to be disrespectful but I always try to be realistic and I often see our government showing their care for foreigners in the media but I ask myself what are we doing to help the BRAZILIANS? Take care.

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