Searching for Stability: Haitian Migrants and the Arduous Journey to Brazil

Migrants workers rights workshop in Manaus

Workshop on Migrant Worker Rights, June 2015, Manaus, Brazil

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This research was supported by a CSU-AAUP Research Grant.

In the past five years, an earthquake, hurricane, and cholera epidemic exacerbated pre-existing difficulties in Haiti, which has contributed to one of the largest diaspora populations in the world. Dr. Mary Kenny, professor of anthropology at ECSU, has been working in Brazil for almost 25 years. In 2012, she travelled to the Amazon region to gain a deeper understanding of an emerging issue facing many poor communities in Amazonian border towns. Since 2010, thousands of Haitian migrants have made the arduous and circuitous trek that requires numerous buses, boats, and airplanes to the jungles of Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia, where they cross porous borders in remote parts of the Amazon region.

The arrival of thousands of migrants in need of food and shelter has been a challenge in a number of small towns, particularly in the state of Acre, which were already struggling with high unemployment, drug trafficking, natural disasters, and few resources. The final destination for most Haitian migrants is São Paulo or other parts of southern Brazil (Paraná, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul) where they have been told that the likelihood of finding work, even in the informal economy, is substantially greater than in the north. However, many spend weeks, months, or for some, years in smaller cities in the north.

It can take up to eight months to obtain a Brazilian visa in Haiti. Many “pay the equivalent of 4,000 USD to have a mediator, or essentially a ‘coyote,’ guide them from Haiti, through four or five countries to the Amazon frontier, and then finally into Brazil,” said Dr. Kenny. She likens the distances traveled by migrants from the Amazon to Southern urban centers as equivalent to that of a coast-to-coast trek across America—distances that many Haitian migrants are unaware of and lack the resources to make, especially after paying such large sums for guided passage.

At the time of her 2012 visit, “there were around 4,000 migrants living in Amazonian border towns,” she said. “But it was clear that this issue was not going to go away.” By the time Dr. Kenny returned to Brazil in the spring of 2015, more than 70,000 Haitians had migrated into the country.

“Since 2012, these small towns have been overwhelmed by people needing food, shelter, and other types of assistance, such as help with documentation. Towns like Assis Brasil in the state of Acre, whose population is around 5,000 people, were housing more than 1,200 migrants in a shelter with a capacity for 300. Groups of up to 100 people enter town every day,” she said. The state of Acre borders the Peruvian and Bolivian edges of the Amazon, and offers a prime entryway into Brazil.

The typical journey lasts more than three months, and brings migrants through Panama into Ecuador, then through to the Amazonian region. “There are also migrants from Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic,” Dr. Kenny said. “Senegalese and Angolans—everyone was getting the message that Brazil was a destination.” The route they were paying to take, though, could be both physically treacherous and rife with robbery, bribery, and uncertainty.

Kenny traded language lessons (she previously studied Kreyòl in Haiti) with some migrants living in a shelter in Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas. The church in Manaus has been an anchor for migrants, both domestic and international. As part of the condition of living in the men’s shelter, Haitian migrants are required to go out each day to search for work. “Many of the migrants were living in the men’s shelter, which was an abandoned house donated to the church. They didn’t have money for bus fare, so they would walk seven to eight miles each way every single day in 90-degree heat just to look for employment,” she said. The opportunity of plentiful employment in Brazil was heavily advertised through word-of-mouth, but the reality was a different story.

“A number of migrants have expressed that they feel ‘deceived,’” said Dr. Kenny. “When they get to Brazil, they see that conditions in some areas are similar to the conditions in Haiti. In 2015, there were devastating floods in the Amazon region, and now they are facing an economic crisis. The unemployment rate is the highest it has been since 2010. The currency has been devalued, and there is currently a major corruption scandal (called Operation Car-Wash) rocking the country. There is also significant backlash to the money spent on short-term mega-events, such as the 2014 World Cup and the upcoming 2016 Olympics, which provide little investment in improving the quality of life for the majority of poor Brazilians.”

These conditions have also strengthened a small, albeit vocal wave of xenophobia. “What has changed from three years ago is the increasing intolerance and racism. In August of this year, six Haitians were shot in São Paulo by drive-by shooters shouting racial insults (they survived). As the economic situation worsens, it has become more common to hear, ‘those Blacks are taking our jobs away.’”

Dr. Kenny made a concerted effort to learn more about the hardships facing female migrants, as women (and often their children) face particular gendered difficulties (social, economic, and sexual). She explained, “For Haitian migrant women in Brazil, one of the few jobs open to them is domestic service, which can be a very exploitative position, especially in the north and northeastern part of the country. Many of the female Haitian migrants are multilingual, and are leaving behind lives where they were successful merchants. It’s a very different profile than what is pictured in the media.”

The Brazilian government is working tirelessly to coordinate with border countries in order to curb illegal immigration and halt the flow of migrants across the border. Haitian migrants are still being awarded humanitarian visas, which allow them to live and work in Brazil for five years.

Since her first visit three years ago, Dr. Kenny noted that some Haitians who had been living in Brazil had already become fluent in Portuguese, secured work as translators, and started radio programs, blogs, and other mutual assistance organizations. “Haitians are now managers at the factories where they were hired. They’re studying at universities.” In spite of the extensive damage caused by the 2010 earthquake, the perilous and costly journey through the Amazon, and the current economic volatility of their destination, Dr. Kenny found Haitian migrants to be positive, hopeful, and determined to establish a new home for their families. Getting to Brazil is just “one step in a long journey,” she said, but as Haiti continues to recover, it’s a journey many Haitians are still willing to make.

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