The world is living one of the worst migration crisis in history. This topic is constantly on the political agenda, with national governments and international organizations addressing it in their speeches and policies. While prejudice against immigrants was somewhat hidden in the arguments for the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, in the United States, it was very much present in the 2016 presidential election and in discussions about an eventual, shameful construction of a wall along the country’s border with Mexico. In turn, the conversation about migration highlights the racism against foreigners, their different skin colors, languages, religions and cultures.
In Brazil – ironically, a country historically built by immigrants – it is no different. During its colonial period, Brazil’s native population increased as a result of waves of Portuguese and African immigrants, the latter who were enslaved for about three and a half centuries. Between 1595 and 1654, the Dutch occupied the Northeast of Brazil, incurring permanent demographic consequences. Following the abolition of slavery in 1888, Italian immigrants replaced the previous workforce on coffee farms in São Paulo and Minas Gerais, while German immigrants occupied the depopulated lands in the southern part of the country. After World War II, more Dutch, Italians and Germans immigrated to Brazil, followed by Spaniards, Syrians, Armenians, Arabs, Japanese and Chinese. Nowadays, these immigrants are mostly celebrated by official holiday dates, stipulated in Brazil’s Constitution.
More recently however, Brazil has received large flows of immigrants from Latin American countries. According to the Brazilian Federal Police, in spite of the ongoing economic crisis, the number of immigrants received by Brazil increased 160% between 2006 and 2016, led by Haitians, Bolivians, Colombians and Argentines. It is possible that this data is underestimated, given that many immigrants cross Brazil’s 17,000 kilometers of borders without identification or registration, aiming to reach the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Nevertheless, the integration of these immigrants into Brazilian society has not been developing in the same way as with immigrants in the 20th century. On the contrary, the racism of individuals (who previously immigrated to Brazil seeking better live conditions) against the cohort of new immigrants has been exposed. The explanation for this apparent contradiction concerns the skin colors of these immigrants. While Portuguese, Dutch, Italians, Germans and even Asian immigrants are classified as white in Brazil, the majority of Latin American immigrants are classified as black or brown.
Between 2014 and 2015, according to Brazil’s Secretary of Human Rights, the number of cases of racism against Latin American immigrants increased 633%. In São Paulo in 2015, 5 Haitian immigrants were shot by a BB gun fired from a moving car, whose driver shouted that Haitians were stealing Brazilians’ jobs. Also in São Paulo that same year, a Haitian immigrant had to quit her waitress job because customers complained she was too black and dirty for the position. In Porto Alegre, a few Peruvians were prevented by other residents from using the premises of the building where they resided. These are a few examples of cases that have reached the official courts in Brazil. However, the Secretary of Human Rights believes that less than 1% of cases of racism against Latin American immigrants in Brazil are reported to the authorities.
Haitians comprise the majority of victims of racism against Latin American immigrants in Brazil. Since the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, which resulted in more than 150,000 deaths, 130,000 Haitians have immigrated to Brazil, according to the government of the Brazilian state of Acre. Haitian immigration may have been reinforced by the presence of Brazilian military troops in Haiti since 2004, as part of an United Nations peacekeeping mission. Although the immigrants are not considered refugees, the Brazilian government offered them a so-called humanitarian visa, which allows the immigrants to stay in the country for at least 5 years. In 2013, however, the states in northern Brazil, through which many of the Haitian immigrants passed to enter Brazil, declared an emergency due to the overpopulation of immigrants in the region. Another large group of immigrants are Venezuelans, who have arrived in Brazil en masse to escape the ongoing humanitarian and political crisis in their home country. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 12,000 Venezuelans have emigrated to Brazil since 2014 in search of food and medicine. This number increased exponentially through December 2016, when Venezuela was suspended from Mercosur.
To deal with these issues, Brazil’s Senate passed the New Migration Law on 18 April 2017. The law granted equal rights to natives and immigrants in Brazil, allowing them full access to the welfare system, including public health, education and pension services. The law also extended the humanitarian visa provided to Haitian immigrants to other nationalities, decriminalized illegal immigration, and designated racism against immigrants as a crime. Institutionally, it represents an important step toward overcoming racism against immigrants in Brazil. However, in spite of this institutional progress, Brazilians continue to face everyday racism, felt primarily by black and brown-skinned immigrants.