COVID-19 at the Brazil-Venezuela borders: the good, the bad and the ugly
How an already difficult situation for refugees in terms of integration and health can become an explosive humanitarian tragedy.
Since 2015, half a million Venezuelans have crossed the border into Brazil, i.e. approx. 10% of the estimated total of displaced Venezuelans worldwide, either to settle (over 250 thousand) or in transit to other countries. The majority crossed the border between the two countries in the cities of Santa Elena de Uairén (Venezuela) and Pacaraima (Brazil), arriving in the least populous of the Brazilian States: Roraima.
Roraima has a feeble infrastructure: with a little over 600 thousand inhabitants, and distant from the Brazilian economic centers, it has an economy dependent upon federal resources and inadequate governmental services, having, for instance, 4 ICU beds for every 100 thousand persons (the least in the whole country). Roraima Gini index is 0,567, showcasing social inequality, and over 30% of the state’s population is deemed as being in poverty. Roraima is the northernmost state of Brazil and shares its border with the southern part of Venezuela.
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The combination of the intrinsic vulnerability of forced migration, as in the case of Venezuelans, with the context of social and economic challenges of Roraima sets a testing scenario in regular times; in light of the COVID-19 pandemic the situation has the potential of a humanitarian catastrophe.
The glimmers of hope in this context arise mainly from two perspectives: the fact that Venezuelans can have regular migratory status in Brazil and that there have been specific responses to the situation in the region, steaming from institutional actions and from solidarity of Venezuelans themselves.
Regarding migratory status, since 2017, Brazil has adopted different measures for the Venezuelan population. On the one hand, it allowed Venezuelans to enjoy residency permits, which benefited around 125 thousand persons, as of November 2019. On the other hand, requesting refugee status in Brazil is also a possibility; one that has been strengthened since June 2019 when Brazil recognized the existence of gross and generalized violations of human rights in Venezuela thus allowing for the application of the regional refugee definition from the Cartagena Declaration of 1984. Thus far, over 37,000 Venezuelans have been recognized as refugees in Brazil based on this initiative. Brazil’s policies regarding migratory status for Venezuelans, albeit not perfect, have been described as a good practice.
In relation to specific responses to the COVID-19 situation it is relevant to preliminary note that access to health in Brazil is universal (Article 196 of the Brazilian Constitution), regardless of migratory status. However, lack of vacancies is a continuous problem. In this sense, a first institutional initiatives to be mentioned is the construction of a 1200-beds hospital (area of protection and care) by Operação Acolhida (detailed below) with the support of UNHCR. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the reinforcement of hygiene conditions in the shelters, the building of spaces in which Venezuelans who are sick, in need of assistance, or have to be isolated could be sheltered and the increased presence of IOM doctors in Roraima. In relation to the actions by Venezuelans themselves it is worthy noticing their engagement in the construction of said hospital and in preventive actions in shelters.
Despite these good steps, the pandemic border in Roraima has brought along new challenges with some not-so-positive responses, which lead us to the bad.
An already saturated health system was a continuous point of contention, as well as the lack of job opportunities
In general, integration, encompassing access to services, is a challenge for migrants in Brazil, which is also true in the case of Venezuelans. Even if Brazil can be regarded as having an avant-garde position on Venezuelans’ legal protection in the region; severe social vulnerability of this population is the norm. The scenario is complicated even further when considering the above mentioned reality of Roraima. This complex setting led to tensions between the national population and Venezuelans, with escalating xenophobia and discrimination. The situation could not be placated even with the presence of international organizations that tried to improve integration. The first sheltering initiatives were especially precarious and unhealthy. An already saturated health system was a continuous point of contention, as well as the lack of job opportunities.
As a response to this context, in 2018 the Brazilian government established Operação Acolhida – led by the Office of the Chief of Staff (of the Presidency) with a strong participation of the Army - focusing first on the ordering of the border, which led to the creation of sheltering spaces with more resources and more personnel, as well as collaboration with NGOs and international organizations. As a second step, Operação Acolhida initiated the interiorização of Venezuelans, meaning their redistribution into other Brazilian states, aiming to diminish the pressure in the border state. Operação Acolhida and its several actions has been considered a good practice, however it has not been able to eliminate social conflicts and xenophobia (even by the local government), which can have disastrous results in light of COVID-19.
Besides these aspects, one also notices bad practices in terms of borders, protection of vulnerable groups, government responses and overall attitude towards COVID-19.
Closed borders do not prevent crossing but rather only develop riskier and more dangerous conditions
First, there was the closure of the borders, with Brazil-Venezuela being the first to be shut down. The reasoning presented was that the social conditions of Venezuela would enable COVID-19 to achieve alarming numbers. The measure seems inadequate as it might be seen as a violation of non-refoulement and, in practice, closed borders do not prevent crossing but rather only develop riskier and more dangerous conditions and unsafe access for persons in need of international protection. The measure is also disproportionate as other less harmful means (such as quarantines) could be put in place to control COVID-19.
The addressing of the needs of indigenous groups from Venezuela, specially the Warao is another challenge, as they have specific needs in general but also in light of COVID-19, such as access to information about the disease and prevention in their own language and specific health initiatives. Both Brazilian and Venezuelan indigenous groups seem to be on the margins of the pandemic responses.
There was also the suggestion by a commander of Operação Acolhida to his troops to deliberately expose themselves to COVID-19 to become immune. This follows reports of inadequate prevention measures and the fact that the number of infected Army members in Roraima is proportionately high, and can put even more pressure on the health system, especially since the Roraima government has not delivered equipment essential to fighting the pandemic which means that the above mentioned 1200-beds hospital has yet to be inaugurated.
One can see, then, that Venezuelan refugees in Roraima are facing increased challenges in light of COVID-19. Some existed prior to the pandemic, others are peculiar to the current situation. The dynamic of integration (including health) in Roraima needs to be thought beyond borders. International Refugee Law and human rights must be considered so that the needs of refugees and other forced migrants are adequately addressed in regular times or during a pandemic.
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