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Haitians Migrate to Brazil in Droves as Country Continues Long Earthquake Recovery

In the five years since the disaster, a wave of migrants has turned from traditional destinations toward a country where no more than a few hundred Haitians resided before 2010.
January 15, 2015, 3:50pm
Photo by Eva Hershaw

When a 7.0 magnitude earthquake shook Haiti for 35 seconds five years ago, killing hundreds of thousands of people and leaving millions injured and homeless, Exzaire Dorestin was finding his rhythm as a performer known as DJ Osymix. He lost a cousin who was living in the capital of Port-au-Prince when the quake hit, but his hometown of Gonaïves, located nearly 100 miles to the north, survived relatively unscathed. For a while, his music business even continued to grow. He played at nightclubs as foreign workers and aid dollars poured into the country.

"We felt the earthquake in Gonaïves and we knew it was strong," Dorestin told VICE News. "Our city got lucky, though. We didn't see all the death that they saw in Port-au-Prince."

But the economic aftershocks of the disaster soon reached the countryside, affecting Haitians with little or nothing to give. Dorestin's livelihood diminished, and his family had difficulty making ends meet. By 2013, he had sold his music equipment and bought a ticket to Ecuador, which requires no entry visa for foreigners. From Quito, he hired smugglers to move him through the Peruvian cities of Lima and Cusco and the country's remote Madre de Dios jungle region to Brazil.

'People are desperate to get out of Haiti, and we are pressed to capacity.'

When Dorestin crossed the border into the Amazonian state of Acre, he had traveled for 12 days at a cost of $3,000. He found nearly 2,600 people, most of them Haitian, at a refugee camp established by the Braziliangovernment near the small town of Brasiléia. The shelter was originally built to house 300, and the bathrooms had overflowed into the common patio by the time he arrived.

"No one could have imagined what we would see in that camp," he said. "I felt so sad, but with all the money I had spent to get there, there was no other option. I couldn't go back."

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Dorestin and three of his brothers now live in Brazil, part of a wave of Haitian migrants who have turned from traditional destinations such as the United States, Canada, and France toward a country where no more than a few hundred Haitians resided before 2010. By the end of 2011, the number of Brazilian asylum requests filed by Haitians had increased five-fold.

The Brazilian Consulate in Port-au-Prince estimates that 60,000 Haitians currently reside in the South American country. Every day, hopeful migrants form a line that wraps around the office.

A crowd of people waiting to apply for a visa outside of the Brazilian Consulate in Port-au-Prince.

Nearly five years after the earthquake in Haiti, the numbers paint a somber picture. An estimated 58.5 percent of the population still lives in poverty, while extreme poverty in rural Haiti sits at 38 percent. In a country of 10 million, only five percent of the working population participates in the formal labor sector. Despite major advancements in the provision of housing and basic services, as of last September more than 85,000 people were still living in tent camps.

Haiti remains the poorest and one of the most unequal countries in the Western Hemisphere. Following the earthquake, those who had sufficient money to do so left the country, where migration has been tied to recurring crises more closely than perhaps anywhere else in the world. Remittances to Haiti spiked after the earthquake, accounting today for 25 percent of GDP. According to the Center for Global Development, four out of five Haitians who have escaped destitution have done so by leaving the country.

"The continuous outflow has created a long-term concern for Haiti," Alfred Pierre, a sociologist at the State University of Haiti, told VICE News. "The first priority is to make migration safe, then to talk about what crises we need to address at home that would keep Haitians from leaving."

Few Haitians looked to South America prior to 2010, but restrictions on migration to common destinations like the United States or the Dominican Republic led large numbers to flock to Brazil despite its distance, drawn by its booming economy and hospitable immigration policy. This is reflected in the daily scene outside the Brazilian Consulate in the upper-class neighborhood of Petion-Ville, where as many as a hundred Haitians can be found waiting outside, immigration papers and children in tow.

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On a recent afternoon, a man was agitating the crowd outside by loudly claiming that a Brazilian visa could be bought on the street for $2,000. Cries from the sidewalk could be heard through the window of Brazilian Consul General Victor Hugo Irigaray's office.

"We have had problems with corruption in the past, but that is just one of many challenges we face," he told VICE News. "If Brazil doesn't send me more employees soon, I really don't know what is going to happen." He retrieved a list of falsified names that the consulate had discovered while processing visa requests. "People are desperate to get out of Haiti, and we are pressed to capacity."

The southward bend in Haiti's migratory flow has been linked to numerous factors, the most obvious being the humanitarian visa that the Brazilian government established in 2012 and lately voted to extend through October 2015. But the visa's implementation has not thwarted irregular migration through Ecuador and Peru. Those with access to money can skip the consulate lines and risk deportation and detention in transit countries — but if they make it to Brazil, they won't be turned away.

A Brazilian MINUSTAH soldier in Cité Soleill, where residents painted buildings green and yellow ahead of the World Cup. 

Even before the earthquake, Brazil was already increasingly present across Haiti. A Brazilian battalion known as BRABAT leads the military component of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which was established in 2004 after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. With an estimated 1,200 troops making up 25 percent of the UN force in the country, the Brazilian unit is the largest working in Haiti. It caused an international stir in 2005 when reports of dozens of civilians killed emerged after MINUSTAH conducted a raid on gangs operating in the impoverished Cité Soleil area, but has since mended relations with the community. The battalion shared in the country's loss when a number of Brazilian personnel died in the earthquake.

MINUSTAH has been the country's de facto military authority and, in many respects, the social benefactor of some of the poorest parts of Port-au-Prince for a decade. During a recent routine UN patrol through Cité Soleil, children were seen running toward the vehicle with hands outstretched to soldiers, who waved back and smiled from beneath their blue helmets. Last year, BRABAT erected viewing screens during the World Cup so that Haitians who had adopted the Brazilian team as their own could watch the games. Fans in Cité Soleil painted buildings green and yellow for the occasion.

"Over the past 10 years, we have built a positive relationship with the people of Haiti," Col. Vinícius Ferreira Martinelli told VICE News on a recent visit to BRABAT headquarters. "They have grown to trust us, and they relate their positive experience with us to the country of Brazil."

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It is a role that nevertheless remains controversial, particularly in light of an alarming cholera outbreak that apparently resulted from the poor disposal of untreated MINUSTAH sewage. The bacterial epidemic has infected more than 720,000 Haitians and killed more than 8,700.

But Brazil has won praise for welcoming international migrants and refugees, particularly from Haiti and Syria. In 2013, Haitians in Brazil eclipsed Portuguese workers as the most numerous foreign participants in the country's formal labor market. Grégoire Goodstein, the International Office of Migration's Chief of Mission in Port-au-Prince, hopes that Brazil's policies will encourage other developed countries to consider a temporary work visa for Haitians.

"We are helping the Haitian government to draft a migration policy. It is irregular migration that poses a danger," Goodstein told VICE News. "A market-labor analysis is needed that could match the skills that Haiti has to offer with a seasonal visa. This would incentivize their return, if they knew they could go back and earn more at a later time."

Dorestin now lives in the central Brazilian city of Cuiabá, where he works at a pharmacy earning $320 per month. Two of his brothers also live there, while a third resides Santa Catarina. Despite the relatively high cost of living in Brazil and the debt accumulated on their journeys, the siblings have been able to send money back to their mother, Berenice Desamour, who remains in Gonaïves.

"I hope my sons never come back to Haiti," she told VICE News. "I do hope I see them again, but this country had nothing to offer them."

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