Photo by Eva Hershaw
Last Saturday in Brasiléia, a quiet frontier town in the western Brazilian state of Acre, Sebastião Viana, the governor, stood in the middle of a crumbling road leading across the border to Peru, some 60 miles away. Hundreds of Haitian and Senegalese migrants surrounded him. Those closest to him were kneeling, their hands outstretched in prayer.
Brasiléia has been an unlikely center of controversy since Brazil first welcomed Haitians following the 2010 earthquake, which left over two million people homeless. Two years ago, the government announced the creation of a humanitarian visa that would be exclusively issued to Haitian refugees. In 2013 alone, more than 13,000 Haitians received humanitarian visas.
In theory, these visas should be issued at the Brazilian embassy in Haiti, but slow processing times, fees, and what many consider to be excessive requirements have driven many Haitians to travel through Ecuador, which requires no visa for entry. From there, migrants follow a route through the Peruvian capital of Lima to the city of Cusco, eventually crossing the border into Brazil. In the past year, several hundred Senegalese have followed the same route.The governor’s visit to Brasiléia marked the closure of a nearby refugee camp that served as a processing depot for the influx of migrants. An estimated 20,000 Haitians have passed through the area.“I know today marks a new phase in your lives,” Viana said. “Brazil was built by people from many different places, and we now live in a racial democracy. We want this same equality for you, and I know you will be happy in Brazil.”The crowd erupted in applause. Due to a recent flood that hampered the transport of refugees, hundreds of them had been stuck — many for more than two months — in an overflowing refugee camp that, in its final days, had nearly 2,600 people living in a space built for 300. But as the governor departed, taking with him a busload of migrants headed for a temporary shelter in the state capital of Rio Branco, uncertainty set in for those left behind.“I have to leave this place,” Neison Telius, a Haitian from Cap-Haïtien, told VICE News. “People from the town peer into the camp in disbelief. I’m ashamed to be seen like this.”
Neison, who is on his way to meet his sister in São Paulo, has been waiting a week for his documents to be issued.“We don’t know when we will get our documents or when we can leave,” he complained. “Had I known I would arrive to this, I would have never left Haiti.”Almost two months ago, when the swollen Madeira River covered the only road connecting the state of Acre to the rest of Brazil, a humanitarian crisis slowly began unfolding in Brasiléia. Brazilian traffic in and out of the state was stalled, and supplies of food and fuel dwindled. The government declared a state of emergency. With migrants still flowing into the camp at a rate of 40 to 50 per day, social services began to collapse.
Dogs and roosters picked at food scraps as they wandered through the sodden camp. The bathrooms, pushed far beyond their capacity, were no longer functional; people relieved themselves wherever they could. The camp’s residents huddled on ravaged sleeping pads, tending to the coughs, fevers, and skin conditions they had acquired since their arrival.Sonia Santana, from the Dominican Republic, was on her way to meet her Haitian husband in Mato Grosso do Sul. “I cried when I arrived,” she told VICE News.For the past two days, Sonia hadn’t been able to keep down any food — typically rice, noodles, and beans. She was traveling with her daughter, Nana, who recently developed a fever.
“My husband came through here before things got this bad,” Sonia said, “but if he could see this, he never would have put us through this.”
A few weeks ago, at the height of the crisis, the Brazilian Air Force was called in to lift out an estimated 2,000 refugees. On the return flight, they brought food and supplies. It was a desperate response to a situation that had spun out of control. On April 9, in the middle of the relief operation, the state government threw in the towel and announced that Brasiléia would no longer receive refugees.“From now on, refugees will be required to travel on their own to Rio Branco,” Antonio Torres, Acre’s State Secretary of Social Development, told VICE News. He cited costs and community tension among the reasons for the closure. Between 2010 and 2014, Acre is estimated to have spent nearly $7 million to shelter migrants.“They have come this far,” Torres said. “I have no doubt they will figure out how to navigate another 185 miles to the temporary shelter. We can’t be responsible for them any longer.”
Even so, many believe that closing the camp is a misguided attempt by the state to shirk its responsibilities.“There is no long-term plan for migrants here,” Iara Beekma, a Bolivian researcher working with the refugee population in Brasiléia, told VICE News. “The shelter was beyond its capacity, but closing it down cannot stop people from coming across the border. It only pushes the problem further upriver. Once the shelter closes in Rio Branco, we don’t know what will happen.”On Monday, police officers and taxi drivers working in the area were given a stern directive: No more refugees will be taken to Brasiléia.
“The problems here are not going to end,” Jean Noel Charles, a Haitian from Henche, told VICE News.He had been in the camp for 10 days, but already understood the importance of the shelter to the thousands of Haitians that come into Brazil every year.“Things were not pretty here, but we got the information and support that we needed to move on with our lives in Brazil,” he said. “What about those crossing the border now?”Follow Eva Hershaw on Twitter: @beets4evaPhotos by Eva Hershaw