BY MICHELLE MORA
Michelle Mora is a first-year M.A. student in the Latin American Studies program.
Refugee policies in Brazil have become more generous since the country’s return to civilian rule in 1985, and are even touted by some as a “model refugee law for Latin America” (Fischel De Andrade and Marcolini 2002). Despite receiving few refugees annually, Brazil’s legal framework and refugee protections have increased its global profile as a friendly state for refugee resettlement and made it a leader in providing a Latin American solution to the current “crisis.” This article examines why Brazil opened its arms to an increasing amount of refugees in recent years.
Researchers have long examined the factors affecting the reception of refugees, but few studies have focused on Latin America, a region historically responsible for creating refugees rather than accepting them. I argue that Brazil has embraced refugees mainly due to political, economy and moral factors. Namely, Brazil’s desire to attain international legitimacy, fill labor gaps, and right its moral wrongs after human rights abuses under its past authoritarian government.
Brief history of Brazil’s refugee policies
Potential refugees that arrived in Brazil were treated as ordinary migrants until 1960, though Brazil continued to deny refugee status to non-Europeans through the 1970s (Fischel de Andrade and Marcolini 2002).  In the 1980s, Brazil removed all restrictions on country of origin and began granting refugees work authorization shortly thereafter. The outbreak of the Angolan civil war of 1992 marked a turning point for active support of refugees. At the time, Brazil accepted 1,200 Angolans with refugee protection. By 1995, 70% of those applying for asylum (about 2,000 people) were granted refugee protection (Fischel de Andrade and Marcolini 2002).
In recent years, Brazil has stepped up its efforts to embrace refugees. In 1997, Brazil made history by passing the first comprehensive refugee law in South America, the 1997 Refugee Act. It reinforced that all those fleeing due to safety concerns must be recognized as refugees and receive the protection this status entails. The following year, Brazil established the National Committee for Refugees, which provided a forum for state and NGO actors involved in refugee issues to assist in improving the asylum process (Fischel de Andrade and Marcolini 2002). According to UNHCR, as of December 2014 Brazil was hosting 7,490 refugees and 11,216 asylum seekers. Refugees receive work permission and access to public services, such as education and healthcare. Six years after arrival, a refugee is eligible for a permanent visa and Brazilian citizenship. In some cases, they can also qualify for financial support from the government (Fischel de Andrade and Marcolini 2002). In 2013, Brazil launched a humanitarian visa program for Syrians, and by November 2015 it had issued 8,000 humanitarian visas to Syrians. Some 18,000 asylum-seekers were awaiting decisions by the end of 2015 (UNHCR).
Although the numbers of asylum requests have been low in comparison to North America, Brazil is one of the biggest recipients of refugees in Latin America. I turn now to the factors that have led Brazil to open its doors to an increasing number of refugees in recent years.
Strong NGO and Catholic Church advocacy have led to pro-refugee policies in Brazil. These have been supported by a lack of opposition from labor unions and a tolerant environment due to Brazil’s historically high immigration rates. The strongest advocates for refugees in Brazil are the Catholic Church and NGOs. With a large Catholic population, the influence of the Catholic Church in Brazil is considerable. In cases where the government has failed to protect the human rights of refugees and immigrants, the Church, acting through NGOs or the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, has successfully lobbied for government action. For example, after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, a large number of Haitians sought asylum in Brazil’s Amazon region. Pastoral Care for Migrants, a Catholic Church organization, was appalled by the conditions of a border town where Haitians awaited refugee status and published a report that attracted the attention of the national press and spurred government action. Other examples of NGO lobbying success are the amnesties granted every ten years to undocumented immigrants since the 1980s. According to Brazil’s Federal Police, under pressure from the Church, the government has granted 18,000 amnesty requests providing legal work status to immigrants (Antonio da Silva 2013). While Brazil’s strong labor unions are the strongest opponents of pro-immigration policies, they have been relatively silent on refugees, perhaps due to the small numbers accepted. This lack of opposition may have created room for pro-refugee policies.
Another factor creating an environment favorable to open immigration policies is Brazil’s large diaspora community. With a population of 204 million, Brazilians are nearly all descendants of African slaves or immigrants. Although social tensions are present, Brazil is regarded as a tolerant society towards refugees and immigrants. Many political and economic elites came to Brazil fleeing persecution, and are often sympathetic to their plight. Large communities of Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, Lebanese, Syrian, and Japanese immigrants reside in Brazil, and many have come to prominence in government and business. In fact, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s father entered Brazil as a refugee during World War II. Recent waves of refugees post-World War II have especially impacted the attitudes towards refugees. In a 2015 UN speech Rousseff called Brazil “a country of refugees” that would maintain an open relationship with asylum seekers (Fellet 2015).
However, the influence of Brazil’s diaspora community on refugee policy is unclear, as few studies have been done on this linkage. What we do know is that Brazil is the only Latin American country to issue humanitarian visas without requiring proof of family ties to the country, which suggests that diaspora communities are not the primary focus of refugee policies (Becker 2015). Nevertheless, diaspora communities play a prominent role in integrating refugees upon arrival. Since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, the Syrian population in São Paulo increased four times, and the Syrian diaspora has embraced integration efforts for these new arrivals. One example is a popular Facebook page run by Amer Mohamad Masarani, a Syrian who has lived in Brazil for 18 years. Amer helps refugees bridge the language barrier to get cell phones and housing, connecting new arrivals to additional services (Sandy 2015).
Another political motivation could be Brazil’s push for international recognition. The country has gained international acclaim for its refugee policies. In 2015, the UN ranked Brazil as one of the top four countries for refugee resettlement (Becker 2015). According to the World Refugee Survey in 2013, Brazil was the only country to receive an “A” based on several criteria including access to courts and the right to work (Becker 2015). Brazil is also praised for its reciprocal entry policy that allows refugees from many African states to enter Brazil as tourists and then apply for asylum. Is this recognition motivating Brazil to pursue these policies? Although there is no evidence that relates the two, Brazil has made pointed efforts to increase its visibility in the international arena over the last ten years. Former President Lula’s frequent international appearances, paired with Brazil’s growing economic importance as a “BRIC” gave the country a larger platform to project influence. Since 2003, Brazil has increased its participation in UN peacekeeping operations and efforts to pursue a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. These trends suggest Brazil’s foreign policy has shifted in search of stronger international influence. International legitimacy may be a strong factor in Brazil’s liberal refugee policy, though additional research is needed to demonstrate a causal relationship.
Economic opportunity to fill labor gaps also helps explain Brazil’s attitudes towards refugees. Brazil has lacked low skilled labor to work in the São Paulo clothing manufacturing industry since the 1980s. Some argue the mass amnesties granted to undocumented immigrants were a response to Brazilian manufacturers pressure for more cheap labor (Antonio da Silva 2013). This suggests that the government considers labor gaps when acting on immigration policy. Today, Brazil lacks skilled labor in technology and medicine. Brazil must find a solution for these shortages and accepting refugees could be part of the answer.
Political and academic discourse offers evidence that economic factors are driving acceptance of refugees. “All refugees who want to come and work, live in peace, help construct our country, have children, live with dignity; we are here with open arms,” affirmed President Rousseff at a G4 meeting in 2015 (Fellet 2015). She has repeated this message on other occasions, including September 2015, when she said that her country would accept those “expelled from their countries” who are willing to work in Brazil (Branco 2015). The academic community also stresses the economic benefits of refugees. A professor at Fundação Getulio Vargas, Oliver Stuenkel, received media attention when he wrote a New York Times article, arguing that Brazil should accept 50,000 Syrian refugees, as they would bring economic benefits to Brazil (Costas 2015).
The timing of the 1997 Refugee Act and the 1988 Constitution are compelling evidence that the symbolic importance of accepting refugees following Brazil’s authoritarian rule is an important factor in explaining the country's open refugee policy in Brazil. Brazil’s transition to democracy after over 20 years of authoritarian rule in 1985 was marked with growing public awareness of human rights issues, including refugee policies. Additionally, in 1997, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a former political refugee in Chile in the 1960s, approved the aforementioned 1997 Refugee Act. Soon after, the city of Passo Fundo in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul became the first in the Americas to join the Cities of Asylum Network, granting safe haven to artists, authors, and intellectuals persecuted in their home states (Fischel De Andrade and Marcolini 2002). Furthermore, Brazil’s 1988 constitution is a symbol of the break with repressive authoritarianism, outlining guidelines for Brazil’s international behavior. The constitution explicitly recognizes human rights as a guiding principle of Brazil’s international affairs.
The Catholic Church is active in holding the government accountable to these constitutional commitments. When the Ministry of Justice simplified the refugee visa renewal process in 2013, Father Parisi, coordinator of “Missão Paz," a Sao Paulo-based NGO, applauded the effort as a “grand gesture of human rights,” adding that Brazil had found its expression at the global level as a country that welcomes massacred populations (Rede Brasil Atual 2015). The church has maintained this stance of solidarity with refugees, certainly impacting political discourse (Antonio da Silva 2013).
Towards a Latin American Model?
In sum, economic, political and moral factors have driven Brazil to open its arms to an increasing number of refugees. Today, not only stands as a model for refugee policies in Latin America, but also is influencing the human rights agenda in the world. However, despite its efforts, Brazil still does not accept refugees in significant numbers. Through future efforts to welcome and integrate migrant groups, Brazil has the opportunity to meet the needs of the labor market and make peace with its past, while gaining the increased international legitimacy it so desires.
 This article distinguishes between “refugees” and “migrants.” Refugees are those who must seek protection from a foreign government and require legal protection . The term “migrants” is used for anyone living outside of their home for more than one year, irrespective of the causes.
Antonio Da Silva, Sidney. November 2013. "Brazil, a New Eldorado for Immigrants?: The Case of Haitians and the Brazilian Immigration Policy." Urbanites. Vol 3. No. 2: 3-18.
Becker, Elisabeth. November 2015. "The Four "Best" Countries for Refugee Resettlement." UN Dispatch. http://www.undispatch.com/the-four-best-countries-for-refugee-resettlement/.
Costas, Ruth. September 2015. "Brasil Deveria Receber 50 Mil Sírios.” BBC Brasil. http://www.bbc.com/portuguese/noticias/2015/09/150924_oliver_stuenkel_ru.
Fellet, João. September 2015. "Todo Refugiado Que Queira Trabalhar é Bem Vindo No Brasil, Diz Dilma.” BBC Brasil. http://www.bbc.com/portuguese/noticias/2015/09/150926_dilma_rousseff_nyc_jf_lgb.
Fischel De Andrade, José, and Adriana Marcolini. 2002. "Brazil's Refugee Act: Model Refugee Law for Latin America." Forced Migration Review. Vol 12. No. 13: 37-39. http://www.fmreview.org/FMRpdfs/FMR12/fmr12.13.pdf.
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Sandy, Matt. January 2015. "Syrians Find Safety, Hospitality in São Paulo." Aljazeera America. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/1/22/Syrian-refugees-in-Sao-Paulo-Brazil.html.
UNHCR. 1951. "Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees." http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html.
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PHOTO CREDIT: "Refugees from the Syrian War live in Rio de Janeiro" by Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil is licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 3.0. The picture shows part of the street food stand set up by Hanaa Nachawaty, a Syrian refugee in Rio de Janeiro, against the city's picturesque black and white mosaic sidewalks. Hanaa Nachawaty sells esfirras, a traditional savory pastry from Lebanon and Syria.