Venezuelan refugees inflame Brazil’s already simmering migrant crisis

Though refugee and migration crises have dominated headlines in recent years, most news stories exclude Brazil. That’s because of the world’s roughly 62.5 million forced migrants, according to the United Nations – just a small proportion are thought to be in Brazil.

New research suggests this omission needs correcting.

According to the Forced Migration Observatory, a new database from the Brazilian think tank Instituto Igarapé, which I co-founded, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians are driven from their homes each year by disasters, development and violent crime.

Venezuelans escaping economic crisis at home are also now pouring into Brazil. Though neighboring Colombia has born the brunt of this exodus – with as many as 1 million migrants settling there since 2015 – Brazil has seen 60,000 crossings from Venezuela and numbers are rising fast.

A neglected crisis

Despite this influx, Brazil’s main migrant problem remains the millions of displaced people already inside its borders. This domestic crisis has mostly simmered under the radar for nearly two decades.

In part, that’s because internally displaced people are a politically inconvenient topic in Brazil. Each year, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians driven from their land each year by natural disaster, infrastructure development and violence – the three main causes of forced migration in Brazil. But because they are overwhelmingly poor and marginalized, politicians see few upsides to highlighting their plight.

Upwards of 8.8 million people have been displaced across Brazil since 2000. Stefan Ertmann and João Felipe/Wikimedia, CC BY
Officials may also be unaware that they exist. In Brazil, migration scholars tend to focus on voluntary population movement: which prosperous Brazilian states are attracting new residents, and which are losing them.

To date, there has been no attempt to compile and analyze comprehensive nationwide data about Brazilian citizens who move – or are moved – against their will.

My team at the Forced Migration Observatory, which launches in mid-February 2018, began this mammoth task in 2016. Pulling information from Brazil’s national development bank, government agencies and non-governmental organizations, we found that a stunning 8.8 million Brazilians – out of a population of 208 million – have been forced to flee their homes since 2000.

Crisis both natural and man-made

Our data analysis shows that natural disasters cause most migration within Brazil. Between January 2000 and June 2017, floods, storms, mudslides and droughts drove 6.4 million people from their homes – or an average of 357,000 people each year.

Such disasters have a high price tag. According to the United Nations, floods, mudslides and the like cost Brazil the equivalent of 800 million reals – or US$245 million – each month in recovery, reconstruction and lost productivity. That’s almost 2 percent of its gross domestic product each year.

Flooding, droughts and other natural disasters drove 6.4 million Brazilians from their homes between January 2000 and June 2017. Paulo Whitaker/Reuters
Infrastructure development also contributes to Brazil’s migration woes. Since 2000, the country – which before a 2014 recession was among the world’s fastest-growing economies – has built at least 84 large hydroelectric dams.

The Forced Migration Observatory estimates that the construction, flooding and environmental changes related to these projects have displaced between 130,000 and 230,000 people. Most of them come from the states of Rio Grande do Sul, Amazonas, Santa Catarina, Minas Gerais and São Paulo.

In total, development schemes have uprooted upwards of 1.2 million Brazilians over the past 18 years.

Many of these citizens, left indigent, head to cities seeking employment. There, they frequently end up in urban slums or on the streets, where they become newly vulnerable to development-induced displacement.

In the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, both hosted by Brazil, at least 47,000 Brazilians — primarily lower-income residents of big cities like São Paulo and Rio do Janeiro — were forcibly evicted to make way for stadiums, subway lines and new housing.

Brazil’s Ministry of Cities issued a policy to safeguard the rights of people involuntarily removed from their homes in 2013, but implementation has been sporadic. In practice, most cities and towns have no strategy in place to support new arrivals, whether they hail from Venezuela or just down the block.