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Brazil is rethinking its promise to accept 100,000 Syrian refugees

The government of Dilma Rousseff made the promise last year but the new right-leaning government headed by President Michel Temer is reportedly backtracking.
Photo by James Young/VICE News

Rio de Janeiro's carnival is arguably the most emblematically Brazilian cultural event of the year. Yet few local revellers appeared to enjoy this year's parade as much as a group of refugee youngsters from the Coração Jolie choir.

Dressed in brightly colored costumes, the children sang and danced to carnival favorites as the invited guests of the Mangueira do Amanhã samba school.

"I love Brazil, everyone has helped us so much," Mohammad, a young Syrian refugee said excitedly before the parade. "I like soccer, so now I support the Corinthians team. And I love the churrasco [barbecue] in Brazil, though without pork, of course. I've never thought about going back home."


Mohammad and his friends came to Brazil within the first wave of Syrian refugees welcomed into the country by President Dilma Rousseff before she was suspended in May while the senate debates whether to impeach her for alleged creative accounting.

Now it looks like they might also be the last wave, as Brazil's interim government reportedly backs away from promises to dramatically increase the numbers.

"Even in moments of difficulty and crisis, like we're going through now, we have to welcome refugees with open arms," President Rousseff had declared last September. "I want to reiterate the willingness of the government to receive those who, expelled from their homelands, want to come here and live, work, and contribute to the prosperity and peace of Brazil."

By early this year Brazil had begun negotiations with Germany and the EU in which the South American country offered to ease the pressure from Syrian refugees on Europe. Brazil offered to accept up to 100,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years, in exchange for assistance with the costs of bringing them across the Atlantic.

In recent weeks, however, Brazilian media outlets have begun reporting that Alexandre de Moraes, the current justice minister, has suspended the talks. The reports have continued, citing sources directly involved in the negotiations, despite government denials that it is rolling things back.

The move is widely blamed on cost-cutting exercises put in place by the new right-leaning government headed by President Michel Temer that appears to have no desire to break Brazil's traditionally restrictive attitude to asylum.


A report published by Brazil's National Refugee Committee last month said that the country is currently home to around 8,800 refugees. The largest contingent comes from Syria with around 2,300. Others come from countries such as Angola, Colombia, The Congo, Lebanon, Iraq, Liberia and Pakistan. Asylum applications climbed from 966 in 2010 to 28,670 in 2015.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Brazil's rate of 0.04 refugees for every 1,000 residents is one of the lowest in the world — placing it 137th out of 197 countries evaluated. And those who are allowed in often find themselves abandoned after they arrive.

"Brazil has never had a social support system specifically for refugees," said Larissa Leite, a coordinator at the Caritas Reference Center for Refugees in São Paulo. She pointed specifically to support for housing, financial needs, and food. "Many refugees know they're entitled to benefits, but don't know how to get them."

Leite says refugees are also very concerned with the employment situation, the economy, and the political instability of Brazil today that may remind them of the situations they are fleeing.

And there are also rising signs of aggression towards foreigners.

"Brazilians are a very welcoming, tolerant people," she said. "But maybe at the moment we're not quite as tolerant as we used to be."

Mohammad poses for a photo with his father. (Photo by James Young/VICE News)

Much of the violence has reportedly focused on Brazil's 70,000 strong Haitian community, which grew rapidly when special humanitarian visas were granted after the nation's 2010 earthquake. In August last year six Haitians were shot by a man with a pellet gun in the center of São Paulo, with the shooter reported to have shouted "you stole our jobs" after pulling the trigger.


The Muslim Society of Rio de Janeiro has also reported aggression against muslims in the city.

Viviane Reis, the founder and director of the refugee support group I Know My Rights — which runs the choir to which Mohammad and his friends belong — says all of this is particularly hard on the children.

"Children are the invisible part of the process of resettlement. Maybe because they seem to adapt more easily and more quickly, no one pays any attention to them," Reis said. "But while they learn the language more quickly, they also go through traumatic experiences. They have the responsibility of being the main communicator for the family."

Vronia, a refugee from South Sudan, highlighted some of the troubles they were having adapting to the cultural differences of their new home. She said she was uncomfortable with the amount of gossip and open sexuality.

"Wherever you go in Brazil, people are kissing. For me you go to school to study, not to date or wear makeup," she said. "But at least in Brazil there's no war or fighting. No one cares what religion you are."

Related: The Paris Attacks Could Make Things Even Worse for Syrian Refugees

Follow James Young on Twitter: @seeadarkness