Hundreds of Haitian migrants continue to pour into the region in the wake of the 2010 earthquake.
Human rights activists and politicians in the Brazilian Amazon have warned of an imminent humanitarian crisis, as hundreds of Haitian migrants continue to pour into the region in the wake of the 2010 earthquake.
Nearly two years after their homeland was devastated by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, several thousand Haitians are already thought to have made the pilgrimage through Bolivia, Peru or Colombia into Brazil in search of work. New groups are reportedly arriving each weekend.
But while some are able to secure legal documents and find employment, many end up stranded in tiny border towns such as Brasileia, now home to at least 724 Haitians out of a total population of around 20,000.
“We are calling this a crisis,” Leonel Joseph, one of the first Haitian migrants to arrive in the Amazon state of Acre, said after visiting the Haitian community in Brasileia, near Brazil's border with Bolivia and Peru.
“There are people on the streets, sleeping on the streets and many more people are arriving,” added Mr. Joseph, a teacher who has become a community leader for the Haitian arrivals. “Acre State is heading for a humanitarian crisis. Something needs to be done. [The migrants] need to be given human conditions to live in.”
“The situation is critical,” said Altino Machado, a respected local blogger covering the Haitians' plight in this isolated corner of the Amazon. “The number [of new arrivals] has risen hugely.” Mr. Machado said Brasileia's Haitians, among them babies and pregnant women, were living in filthy conditions. “The guys spend the whole day in the square, wandering around town. The government have been helping them but they now are saying they are going to suspend help because they can't do it any more.”
In his latest dispatch from the border town, Mr. Machado issued a stark warning: “The constant arrival of refugees threatens the town with collapse.”
Addressing Brazil's Senate on Monday, Anibal Diniz, a senator from President Dilma Rousseff's Workers' Party (PT), said: “We are facing an extremely serious problem. The number of Haitians leaving Haiti for Brazil rises every day because they have no chances in their country.” “Brazil has welcomed them ... but we must discuss a strategy to deal with this problem.”
No refugee status
Officially Brazil's government does not recognise the Haitian migrants as refugees. But in a recent interview with the Guardian, Paulo Sergio de Almeida, president of Brazil's national immigration council, said authorities were trying to help.
“While they are not refugees they are people who need some humanitarian support,” he said. “The government has been giving residence to those who can prove the link to the earthquake.” But politicians in the Amazon claim not enough is being done.
At the end of last month, Acre's governor, Tiao Viana, flew to Brazil's capital, Brasilia, to plead with federal authorities for assistance. “The State of Acre has had to pay out one million reals to help these people who are arriving without any food, transport or the slightest means of survival inside Brazilian territory and this is not simply a state matter — it is a humanitarian crisis that needs to be addressed,” he said.
Acre's human rights secretary, Nilson Mourao, said: “The state government no longer has the means, the people, the experience or the money to keep giving humanitarian aid to Haitians who are coming into Brazil over our border.”
When the Guardian visited Brazil's border with Bolivia and Peru in May, there were several hundred Haitians living here in cramped hotels and a local gym.
That number has now risen significantly while other Amazon cities such as Manaus, Tabatinga and Porto Velho have also seen a growing influx.
‘Hope for better future'
Most arrive after a perilous, month-long journey through the Dominican Republic, Panama, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru or Colombia. Starved of work opportunities back home, many hope to secure jobs in infrastructure projects in the Amazon, such as the Belo Monte and Jirau hydroelectric dams.
“I've come here because of the economic problem ... All we could do was come here in search of a better future,” Silvaine Doris, a 46-year-old mother who lost her brother and sister in the earthquake, said.
Authorities had hoped to dissuade Haitians from coming to the region, highlighting poor living conditions and temporarily closing the border with Peru. But Mr. Joseph said more Haitians would arrive, despite warnings, including rumours that one Haitian woman had been raped while travelling through Bolivia.
“They are seeking better lives, better living conditions. When they see the conditions here they are shocked,” he said. “[But] when you tell them that it is very difficult here they don't want to believe you.”—— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011
Keywords: Haiti earthquake