(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Inside Brazil’s gang-run prisons

    For 14 hours, guards did nothing while inmates from the First Capital Command (PCC) used knives and machetes to kill and behead 26 members of a rival drug gang. Having cut the electricity, the prisoners carried out the killings in darkness. The guards were simply too few and too afraid to intervene.

     

    The massacre took place on 15 January in the notoriously violent Alcaçuz Prison on the outskirts of Natal, in northeastern Brazil. It was only the latest in a wave of gang violence inside the country’s prisons that has resulted in more than 130 inmate deaths so far this year, most of them concentrated in the states of Roraima and Amazonas.

     

    Warning signs that Brazil’s prisons were heading for a crisis had been present for some time, but the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for the penal system, failed to act on them.

     

    In one instance in October last year, inspectors from the ministry concluded in an internal report, obtained by the magazine CartaCapital, that members of the PCC gang were moving freely around the Monte Cristo Agricultural Penitentiary in Roraima.

     

    “Prisoners were adept at opening the locks and thus circulated freely in a wide extension of ​the unit and were able to hide themselves in the numerous unfinished or semi-destroyed buildings scattered around between the prison pavilions,” the report stated.

     

    No action was taken and on 6 January, the PCC killed 33 fellow inmates at the prison.

     

    Ironically, the PCC started in 1993 as a prisoner rights organisation that aimed to improve conditions and security for inmates, but later morphed into Brazil’s largest and most powerful organised crime group. Gang members often run criminal enterprises from their cells and represent one of the main threats to other prisoners.

     

    Their victims at Alcaçuz Prison were members of the RN Crime Syndicate, with whom they fight for control of the drug market outside the prison walls. Following last month’s killing spree, a gunfight between the two rival gangs reportedly broke out in the city of Natal that same night.

     

    Beyond the gang warfare, the roots of the crisis can be traced to severe overcrowding and staff shortages. Brazil’s prison population has nearly tripled over the last two decades to more than 600,000 – nearly twice the official capacity – in the wake of drug laws that have seen a steep rise in arrests on drug-related charges.

     

    Vicious circle

     

    Brazil has one of the highest homicide rates in the world and Natal’s per capita murder rate is higher than any other state capital.

     

    Fillipe Azevedo Rodrigues, a lawyer and law professor at Potiguar University in Natal who is authorised to make routine, unannounced prison inspections, argues that the conditions in the prisons both reflect and reinforce the gang violence that plagues surrounding communities. In short, he believes that prisons contribute to Natal’s rampant levels of crime instead of addressing them.

     

    “The prisons are producing criminals at an assembly line level,” Rodrigues tells IRIN during a visit to an interim detention centre in the Natal district of Candelária.

     

    Brazil imposes long prison sentences even for minor crimes, such as the possession of marijuana. While serving time, many of these minor offenders are forced to join the prison’s dominant gangs as their only guarantee of safety.

     

    Natal, alone, has more than 10 prisons. Rodrigues says Candelária is one of the better ones. Nonetheless, the smell of sweat, fungus, urine, and faeces is intense. Each 12- to 15-square-metre cell contains 17 to 20 people. They sit on the floor, shoulder-to-shoulder, with laundry hanging down from the ceiling above. A 10-centimetre opening serves as a window.

     

    Many have been remanded in custody while awaiting trial. Brazil’s judicial system is so overwhelmed that they could spend two years in jail waiting for a trial date.

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    Magnus Boding Hansen/IRIN
    Detainees at Alcaçuz Prison

    Left with the choice of letting alleged criminals go or keeping them remanded for years, authorities have consistently opted for the latter. By 2014, pre-trial detainees made up more than a third of Brazil’s prison population.

     

    Human rights groups say the chronic overcrowding not only leaves inmates more vulnerable to violence but also to the spread of infectious diseases.

     

    According to Rodrigues, most inmates develop severe respiratory problems and skin diseases. One prisoner at Candelária stretches two pale arms through the bars. They are covered in wounds caused by skin disease. “We are being treated like animals, and some of us become animals,” he says.

     

    Tough solutions

     

    Rodrigues recently co-authored a book in which he argues that Brazil’s gangs are often better organised than the corruption-riven state.

     

    He estimates that 40 percent of Natal’s police officers have been corrupted by criminals, 20 percent only exist on paper, and the remaining 40 percent are honest but powerless. The prisons themselves, meanwhile, are woefully undermanned.

     

    Routine cell searches to look for hidden weapons, drugs, and phones come with their own risks when there aren’t enough guards. When prisoners are moved outside their cells, they often manage to start fights and sometimes attempt to escape, explained the head of the inspections and riot control unit for Natal’s wider state of Rio Grande do Norte, Leonardo Alves.

     

    During one such search at Alcaçuz Prison two months ago, before the riot, 400 inmates were ordered to strip naked and wait in the yard. They were ordered to place their hands over their heads while seven officers wearing battle helmets and full-body armour moved cautiously through the cells. The walls were covered with gang graffiti – most of them words or symbols associated with the PCC. The guards found several cell phones and homemade weapons, including a short spear fashioned from a bar broken off a window.

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    Magnus Boding Hansen/IRIN
    Heavily armed guards carry out a routine cell search at Alcaçuz Prison

    Brazilian President Michel Temer has responded to the recent massacres by announcing that 1,000 soldiers will be dispatched to prisons to assist with searches like these.

     

    Temer also said the government would aim to build 30 new prisons over the next year, including five federal maximum security institutions to house the most violent convicts, and 25 state facilities that would aim to ease overcrowding.

     

    But getting to the roots of the prison violence requires far-reaching reforms both in and outside the prison system. Alves admitted as much on the drive back to the city from Alcaçuz. “The violence is like an aggressive type of cancer. It is hard to fight without killing the patient in the process,” he said as his police car kicked up a trail of red dust. ”We won’t give up, but the task ahead of us is difficult.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Empty cells at Alcaçuz Prison while guards conduct a search for weapons and cell phones. Magnus Boding Hansen/IRIN)

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    Inside Brazil’s gang-run prisons
    Locking people up just breeds more criminals
  • The end of Zika?

    Helen Lima de Souza sits alone in the waiting room of a clinic in Brazil’s northeastern city of Recife cradling her eight-month-old, Maria Fernanda.

    The child was born with microcephaly, a birth defect characterised by an abnormally small head and a severely underdeveloped brain. De Souza’s husband left her without saying goodbye as soon as he heard their baby had been born with the condition. “She can’t even lift her head. I will have to take care of her for the rest of her life,” says the mother of two.

    Maria Fernanda is one of more than 2,000 babies in Brazil born with microcephaly because their mothers were infected with the Zika virus during pregnancy. More than 1.5 million Brazilians have been infected with Zika since the mosquito-borne virus was first reported in the country in May last year. The virus has since spread rapidly. It is now present in 75 countries and is thought to have caused microcephaly in 28 of them. Soon the rainy season will return to Brazil and the rest of the Southern Hemisphere, and with it a likely new wave of infections.

    No wonder then, that many were surprised by an announcement from the World Health Organization last Friday that it no longer considers Zika a global health emergency. 

    The WHO designated Zika a “public health emergency of international concern” on 1 February, but said the virus is now better understood and the focus should shift to long-term containment efforts more in line with those used to combat malaria, yellow fever and dengue.

    Funding slowdown?

    The WHO has received $23.9 million in contributions from donors to fund its response to Zika since February and has allocated $3.8 million from its own Contingency Fund for Emergencies. The agency is appealing for another $19 million to implement a strategic response plan up until December 2017.

    “We are not downgrading the importance of Zika. By placing it as a longer-term programme of work, we are saying Zika is here to stay and WHO’s response is here to stay,” Pete Salama, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies’ programme, told a press conference. He stressed that the decision should not cause a slowdown in the fight against Zika. 

    But de Souza fears that is exactly what will happen. And so do some of the world’s leading virologists and epidemiologists who have called the WHO’s decision “unwise” and “premature”, both in the Brazilian and international media

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    Magnus Boding Hansen/IRIN
    Helen Lima de Souza and her baby Maria Fernanda who was born with microcephaly

    One of the WHO’s biggest critics is Paolo Zanotto, a professor of virology at the University of São Paulo. He leads an international team of scientists that has helped develop a promising vaccine against the virus. If the current human trials are successful, it could be on the market by 2018. Despite scientific breakthroughs like this, Zanotto remains worried about the rapid spread of the epidemic and regrets that the WHO did not wait until it was contained before downgrading its emergency status.

    “It is right to say that we know more now, but still we do not know how many people remain to be infected. When Zika was declared a global health emergency lots of money was envisaged, but almost none of it has been invested since then.” 

    Zanotto speculates that a Western bias might have been at play in the controversial decision: “I guess it coincides with the arrival of the winter in the Northern Hemisphere and has to do with the fact that the virus did not cause a massive outbreak as expected there.” 

    That same suspicion is widespread in Recife, the epicentre of Brazil’s Zika outbreak. Here, little has been done to address some of the underlying causes of the virus’ rapid spread. Public hospitals remain understaffed and canals of stagnant, dirty water crisscross the city, making it a paradise for mosquitoes, especially now, at the start of the summer and the rainy season.

    It’s not over

    In Recife’s favelas and poor neighbourhoods, few people have access to toilets with proper drainage or to doctors when they get sick. Water for drinking, bathing and cooking is stored in large, open plastic containers on the sides of houses, offering the aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries the Zika virus, perfect breeding conditions.

    “It is this tremendous sanitation crisis that has made Recife the capital of [the Zika and microcephaly] epidemics,” explains Veronica Ferreira, a social worker and researcher from the Federal University of Pernambuco.

    Ferreira is working with a feminist NGO, “SOS Corpo – Instituto Feminista para a Democracia”, on a study looking at the living conditions of women in the city who’ve been infected with Zika.

    The study’s preliminary findings suggest that in some Recife neighbourhoods and nearby villages up to 90 percent of inhabitants have been infected with either Zika, dengue or chikungunya, all carried by the aedes aegypti mosquito. For the women Ferreira interviewed, who were sometimes infected with two or three of the diseases simultaneously, it was a struggle to continue taking care of homes and families as well as working. Without a relatively expensive diet of fresh fruit and vegetables and clean drinking water, recovery was also slow.

    Ferreira insists that the Brazilian authorities have done far too little to tackle the root causes of the outbreak. At the peak of the epidemic earlier this year, the government deployed a quarter of a million soldiers to fight the mosquitoes, but Ferreira says they mostly just went from door to door telling women to clean their houses better to prevent the mosquitoes breeding. 

    “What good is that, when the state does not do its part?” she asks. “As long as there is no progress when it comes to sanitation, toilet facilities, hospitals and access to clean water, we will become infected again and again.” Ferreira herself has been infected with Zika and has postponed plans to have a child mainly out of fear of microcephaly.

    Many of those affected by Zika in Recife feel let down by the WHO’s decision.

    “[It] shows that those in power care little about us,” says Geisyelle Brandao, whose son, João Miguel, was one of the first to be born with microcephaly caused by Zika; he turns one on Monday. He and his mother live in the poor Recife suburb of Jaboatão dos Guararapes, where the sanitation situation is as dire as ever. Brandao worries that the WHO has inadvertently given the Brazilian authorities an excuse to scale back efforts to combat Zika.

    “Here, only emergencies are dealt with,” agrees de Souza. 

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    The end of Zika?
  • If evicting people were an Olympic event, Brazil would win gold

    On Saturday night, as a predicted global audience of 900 million tunes in for all the razzmatazz of the opening ceremony, spare a thought for the many residents of Rio de Janeiro who have had their homes taken from them to make way for the Olympic Games, an event that lasts just 17 days.

    Between 2009, when Brazil won the right to host the world's biggest sporting extravaganza, and 2015, 22,059 Rio families were resettled for a number of reasons, according to official figures.

    The number of evictions directly or indirectly linked to the Olympics remains contested.

    In an email to IRIN, Rio de Janeiro city hall said: “In the city's preparation for the Olympics, the only community affected by works related to sports facilities was the Vila Autódromo, nearby the Olympic Park.”

    Vila Autódromo, a favela that had been home to some 900 families, was almost entirely demolished to make room for Barra Olympic Park, a cluster of nine sporting arenas where much of the action will take place. After a long and brutal eviction process, 20 families were able to remain on site, with new houses built for them.

    The official number of evictions that took place for works directly or indirectly related to the Olympics is contested by human rights and advocacy groups, who estimate that more like 2,500 families were forced out.

    The situation is not black and white. Some families, arguably, have benefited from being placed in newly built public housing blocks. And all those resettled either received new lodgings or at least some financial compensation.

    But human rights defenders and advocacy groups maintain that this doesn’t justify top-down removals that they argue serve mostly to benefit the city’s real estate market.

    Here’s a look at how life has changed dramatically for four different groups of Rio residents:

    Sonia and Raphael

    raphael richard with mother sonia braga and son enzo and nephew vito

    Brazilian family
    Sam Cowie/ IRIN
    Sonia and Raphael were removed from their favela in 2010

    Raphael Richard, 26, and his mother Sonia Braga, 53, lived in a favela in Recreio dos Bandeirantes – a fast-developing beach neighbourhood – and were removed in 2010 along with some 194 other families.

    They were relocated to a public housing unit in Campo Grande, more than an hour away from their old home, on the far western edge of Rio de Janeiro. 

    The settlement is located away from infrastructure and commerce in the region. The approach is semi-rural and is littered with huge volumes of dumped rubbish. 

    Raphael and Sonia were removed when city hall said they needed to make way for a rapid bus transit lane, one of the key transport legacies associated with the Olympics. Until now, however, nothing has been done in the space where the community sat.

    “It’s like they removed us just for the sake of it,” says Raphael.

    Raphael and Sonia both say they preferred living at their old house “1,000 times more”. Ideally, they would sell the house and move back to Recreio, but they haven’t received the final proof of ownership documents yet from city hall.

    Raphael complains that transport options in the region are poor. There is only one bus, he says. It also only starts at 5am and sometimes he needs to leave earlier.

    A painter who does informal jobs, Raphael used to be closer to the rich neighbourhoods where the better work was. Now, he faces longer commutes or has to accept lower local wages closer to his new abode.

    Sonia, who has high blood pressure, complains about the long journey to see doctors. “If I get sick, I will die here,” she says.

    The settlement and most of the area around it are also dominated by organised crime groups known as “militias”. These are typically made up of corrupt former and serving police officers who act as informal security in the absence of the state.

    The groups are known to force residents and businesses to pay special “taxes”, and enforce their own laws and justice through violence. The Brazilian press has reported several cases of abuse in the settlement and “expulsions” for breaking the rules.

    “Where we lived before, we didn’t see these things,” says Raphael.

    Margaret and Jenifer

    margaret and jenifer lessa dos reis

    Brazilian mother and daughter
    Sam Cowie/ IRIN
    Margaret and Jenifer have a proper house now, but they worry about gang violence

    Mother and daughter Margaret, 35, and Jenifer Lessa dos Reis, 16, used to live in an abandoned factory in the centre of Rio de Janeiro that was occupied by some 25 homeless families, each in their own partitioned wooden space.

    The building was destroyed as part of a regeneration project of Rio’s degraded port area – including a hotel from US presidential candidate Donald Trump considered one of the main legacies of the Games.

    Today, Margaret and Jenifer live in a public housing block in Senador Camara, a poor neighbourhood in Rio’s West Zone, more than an hour from downtown. 

    As the train approaches the station, about 20 metres from the platform, there is an open-air drug sales point. Drug users walk back and forth across the tracks. Motorbikes drive over the pedestrian train station ramp.  

    Margaret used to work as a domestic maid when she lived in the city centre, but today she looks after her sick son and receives a minimum salary from the government.

    “I would prefer to be in the centre of the city because everything is close. Doctors for my son, everything,” she says. “But here, at least here I have a house. It’s healthier than the squat (in the factory).”

    The neighbourhood is dominated by heavily-armed drug trafficking factions. Sometimes, gang warfare breaks out, meaning Jenifer – who has a one-year-old daughter – misses school.

    “It was good there (at the factory) because you could play outside. Here, (you) can’t play outside because there is the risk of a stray bullet,” says Jenifer. “But apart from this I can’t complain.” 

    Simone 

    Simone de Conceicao, 40, lives with her husband and two children in the same public housing block as Jenifer and Margaret in Senador Camara.

    Before being relocated, she also lived in a squat in the centre of the city that is undergoing a regeneration project regarded as another of the main legacies of the Games.

    “I prefer being in the centre of the city. There, is better for work. I’d prefer to return,” says Simone, who works as a hairdresser and street hawker, selling beer and soft drinks.

    She feels she is missing out as the Olympics would have been a golden opportunity for her to sell her goods to tourists in the centre of the city and in the beach districts. Her husband, who works in civil construction, has to leave the house each day at 4:30am.

    “We have a good relationship with our neighbours we know from the city centre, but apart from that, no good things here,” she says. “The school is really bad and there is no work here.”

    Isabel do Santos Ribeira

    Isabel do Santos Ribeira, 57, likes her new apartment but fears losing it. 

    She used to live in an abandoned factory close by and when it was slated for demolition to make way for the rapid bus transit line she was happy be resettled in a new place.

    However, after little more than a year, she is receiving legal demands to pay for the apartment, supposedly due to an admin error.

    “We were told it was just going to be a key exchange,” says Isabel, who has heart problems. 

    Isabel was compensated with the alternative accommodation in exchange for agreeing to be resettled. But her decision, or the “admin error” she couldn’t have guessed would happen, has caused her serious consequences. Being unable to pay for the apartment, she has received a bad credit rating, which means she can no longer buy materials for her small sewing business on credit. She says she is currently depending on support from family and friends.

    “City hall treats us like a stray dog. When we call, they don’t answer,” she says. “My biggest fear is losing the house.”

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    (TOP PHOTO: Isabel do Santos Ribeira is afraid she'll lose her new place. Sam Cowie/IRIN)

    *This story was amended to take out a reference to the opening ceremony after the plans changed.

    If evicting people was an Olympic event, Brazil would win gold
  • "A peaceful life" in Brazil

    Eyad Abuharb, a 26-year-old former head chef from Damascus, arrived in Brazil nearly two years ago and now runs his own kebab restaurant in Sao Paulo.

    “If I had stayed [in Syria], I would have been forced to join the war or die. I just want a peaceful life,” he told IRIN.

    He chose Brazil because of its open-door policy for Syrian refugees. Since 2013, around 8,000 Syrians have been issued with humanitarian visas by Brazilian consulates in neighbouring countries and over 2,000 asylum claims have been granted. Most have gone to Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paulo, which has a long history of migrants from Lebanon and, to a lesser extent, Syria settling there, and many Arabic restaurants and shops.

    Abuharb flew to Sao Paulo on a humanitarian visa and 10 days later had the necessary documents to be able to starting working and accessing public services. He quickly found work in the kitchen of an Arabic restaurant in the Bras neighbourhood – ground zero for Syrian refugees arriving in the city – after making enquiries at the local mosque.

    After saving some money, he bought his own shawarma kebab machine and rented space to sell his kebabs in a local bar. When the bar went under, Abuharb took over the lease and opened his own restaurant: “Ogarett”. Seven months later, and now with full refugee status, he is weeks away from opening a second restaurant.

    “In Brazil, all you need to do is work. If you work, you can make it,” he said.

    But Abuharb’s success story belies the tough reality for many other Syrians as they try to forge new lives for themselves in Brazil, a middle-income developing country without a coherent policy for integrating refugees.

    “We have a very open policy. But then, once you are here, you are basically on your own,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist and a professor of external relations at Rio de Janeiro State University. “We don’t have the structure to help in the same way that the US or Germany does. Most refugee assistance comes through private charities or religious organisations.”

    Brazil may be on the verge of accepting a new wave of Syrian refugees. In March, it was reported in the Brazilian press that talks were under way with Germany and the European Union to negotiate a deal whereby Brazil would receive an unknown number of refugees in or on their way to Europe. European governments would then fund the cost of their integration in Brazil.

    For Abuharb, the next priority is to bring over his parents and siblings who are still in Syria. “God willing,” he said.


    Go back to the intro page or see the next feature:

    Next feature: Sudan
    A long way from home: Syrians in unexpected places
    "A peaceful life" in Brazil
  • After 60 years of Zika in Asia, why worry?

    Zika has been in Asia and the Pacific for at least 60 years, though its mostly mild symptoms have prompted little cause for concern. But with the World Health Organization declaring a global emergency after an outbreak in Brazil that's been linked to serious birth defects, some countries in the region are taking special precautions.

    Tonga has declared an epidemic, and the government of the Cook Islands has advised women to delay becoming pregnant. Japan, South Korea, Nepal and India have issued advisories to pregnant women against travelling to infected countries.

    South Korea has announced a fine of two million won (about $1,700) on doctors who fail to immediately report suspected cases, while Malaysia has asked travellers to the country to report to health centres if they have symptoms.

    Nepal is trying to get rid of any standing water where the Aedes mosquito, which carries the Zika virus, can easily breed, said Dr. Babu Ram Marasini, director of the disease control division at the Department of Health Services.

    “We carry out search and destroy campaigns, and request people to throw the water from external containers and dry them out for a few hours,” he said.

    India has set up a technical group to monitor the situation, posted warnings at international airports and has promised to ramp up community awareness to stop mosquito breeding.

    Although no cases of infection have ever been documented in India, it was in that country, back in 1953, where the first evidence emerged that Zika had jumped from animals to humans. In that study just six years after Zika was discovered in monkeys in Uganda, researchers from the National Institute of Virology, in the city of Pune, found that 33 out of 196 people surveyed had immunity to the virus.

    For the most part, symptoms have not been particularly serious, usually a rash and a fever, and little attention was paid to Zika for a long time after the study. But in 2007, Zika exploded in the tiny Pacific island of Yap, in the Federated States of Micronesia, where almost three quarters of its approximately 10,000 inhabitants tested positive.

    Six years later, Zika infected about 35,000 people in French Polynesia. It was there that researchers discovered the potential connection between the virus and Guillian-Barré syndrome, according to a 2014 article in Eurosurveillance, a scientific journal that focuses on communicable diseases. Guillian-Barré syndrome causes the immune system to attack the nervous system, leading to a weakening of the limbs and sometimes paralysis.

    It is unclear how Zika arrived in Brazil, but researcher published in a US Center for Disease Control journal theorised last year that it may have arrived with participants from Pacific countries at the World Canoeing Championships in Rio de Janeiro in August 2014.

    Zika is now spreading rapidly through the Americas after recently showing up first in Brazil, where there have been about 1.5 million cases. Preliminary research appears to show a link between Zika and Guillian-Barré syndrome as well as microcephaly, which can cause babies to be born with small heads and underdeveloped brains.

    Despite Zika's relatively benign history in Asia and the Pacific, there is risk that a stronger form of the virus may have emerged, and that it could spread throughout the region with much more severe consequences than previous outbreaks.

    "The strain in Brazil could be new because mutation rates in these viruses are high. Moist tropical climates, population explosion and international travel mean Asia is susceptible to Zika," said Dr. Shailendra Saxena, of the Indian Virological Society.

    He said that rapidly growing populations in many Asian countries make them vulnerable to an outbreak of Zika. As migration to cities increases, so do slums with poor sanitation and stagnant water where mosquitoes can breed.

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    Is Zika a risk to Asia?
  • Finding Zika

    Only 40 medical articles were published on Zika virus in 2015. In just a month and a half, the total in 2016 is 54. 

    Finding Zika
    You might need a microscope to find research on Zika virus
    A look at the leading database of medical research shows that Zika has been out of the spotlight. Until now.
  • Should Europe follow Brazil’s example on humanitarian visas?

    Until recently, Haitians escaping their homeland after the utter devastation of the 2010 earthquake took hazardous overland routes through South America in the hope of finding a better life in Brazil, often putting their lives in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers. Now, it’s simple: they walk into an office in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince and apply for a humanitarian visa. No need for smugglers or sneaking across borders.

    Brazil has introduced a similar system for Syrian refugees who can apply for special visas at Brazilian consulates in the Middle East. The visas facilitate their travel to Brazil. After arriving, they can register asylum claims. So far, 8,000 Syrians have been granted the visas.

    It is an approach experts have been urging Europe’s political leaders to consider, particularly in the case of Syrians who are forced to rely on smugglers and undertake treacherous journeys across the Mediterranean just so they can claim asylum in Europe. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has recommended increasing access to humanitarian visas as one way to create more legal channels for refugees to reach Europe safely.

    EU member states do issue humanitarian visas in exceptional cases, in line with the bloc’s visa code, but they have long resisted attempts to extend their use. Even since the annual migrant disaster on the Mediterranean turned this year into a fully-fledged refugee crisis, European leaders have preferred limited resettlement programmes and/or increasing aid to camps in the region, arguing that it is better for refugees to remain close to home.

    See: Europe doesn’t have a migrant crisis, it has a Syrian crisis

    Bribes, robbery, and more bribes

    Ernson Etienne, 20, was among the last Haitian migrants to have to use the dangerous overland route to Brazil. He arrived in the northwestern state of Acre after a month-long journey, following a well-trodden path used by an estimated 45,000 Haitians since 2010. 

    From Haiti, he crossed into the Dominican Republic, and then took a flight to Bogota, the Colombian capital, and then another to Ecuador. From there, he crossed into Peru and made the rest of the journey overland. 

    It was in Peru that the problems began. Corrupt police threatened to deport Etienne if he didn’t pay them bribes, and human smugglers charged him extortionate fees to take him from city to city. Eventually, he crossed into Brazil via its border with Bolivia after forking out around $3,500 in travel costs, smuggling fees and bribes.

    Etienne now resides at a humanitarian shelter for immigrants and refugees on the outskirts of Rio Branco, the capital of Acre, about four hours from the border with Bolivia. He is waiting for his brother to send him more money for a bus ticket to join him in the wealthy southern state of Santa Caterina, where he hopes to find work in construction or agriculture.

    “I just feel so lucky to be here. The journey was very cruel,” he told IRIN.

    Haitian migrants don’t fit the 1951 Refugee Convention definition of refugees. They are not fleeing persecution or conflict (the Convention does not cover those fleeing natural disasters), but Brazil considers them a special kind of economic migrant and in 2011 created “humanitarian visas” especially for them. 

    But only a limited number of migrants were able to apply for humanitarian visas from Haiti, where the Brazilian consulate in Port-au-Prince was only issuing 100 per month. With demand outweighing supply, thousands chose to make the journey illegally rather than wait. They relied on human smuggling networks that charged high prices to accompany them, often cheating them and abandoning them in the next town, where they were again preyed upon by criminal groups or corrupt police.

    “They took all the money I had and my cell phone which had my contacts in it,” said Alnet Benot, 46, who spent three months trying to get to Brazil from Haiti. He was robbed several times, often travelling for days without food. Fellow migrants eventually helped him reach Brazil.

    How about a direct flight?

    This chaotic approach ended a month ago with the opening of an International Organization for Migration (IOM) office in Port-au-Prince, where Haitians can apply for humanitarian visas at a cost of $260 and then fly direct to Brazil, cutting out the need for smugglers.

    “The visa is seen as a means to reduce dangerous irregular departures, by offering a legal, transparent and significantly cheaper alternative,” explained Dimitry Poletayev, project manager at the IOM centre in Haiti.

    Brazil’s policies are generally welcoming towards migrants, who, once documented, are entitled to access the welfare system. The country has much more capacity to absorb migrants than Europe – currently they only make up around 0.5 percent of the population compared to eight percent in the UK and 13 percent in Germany – and there are no mainstream political parties with an anti-migration agenda.

    Initially, Haitian migrants were drawn to Brazil by the prospect of jobs related to the country’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup. Like Etienne, most head to the wealthy southern states of Sao Paulo, Santa Caterina and Rio Grande de Sul. But Brazil lacks the resources to provide much support to newly arrived migrants. Limited spaces in inner city shelters in the south mean the migrants usually have to pay for private rented accommodation, while they often struggle to enter the labour market, partly due to language barriers. 

    And then there’s the downturn

    Brazil is also in the midst of an acute economic crisis. Its currency, the real, has dropped more than 70 percent against the US dollar since 2010, meaning Haitian migrants now have much less money to send home to their families.

    In the past year, more than a million jobs have also been lost, particularly in the construction industry, one of the biggest employers of migrant workers. There have been reports in the Brazilian media of some Haitians returning home, but others are still arriving. 

    “I just got here six days ago, and already I see that everything is different to how I was told it was going to be,” said Jean-Marc Richard, 22, a Haitian resident of the shelter in Rio Branco, which hosted up to 1,200 migrants at the beginning of the year, the majority of them Haitians, and is now down to 150, about half of them from Haiti.

    While there is speculation that the number of Haitians entering Brazil may start falling due to the economic crisis, experts are quick to point out that the situation back home is much worse.

    “Haiti is in such a bad state that it’s unlikely that the (economic) crisis is going to make much of a difference to those who want to come here,” said Mauricio Santoro, a professor of external relations at Rio de Janeiro State University.

    As Brazil sheds more jobs, Santoro said the backlash against Haitian migrants was growing. While Brazilians are generally sympathetic to the relatively small numbers of Syrian refugees arriving in the country, the Haitians are more likely to experience racism.

    While violent attacks remain rare, a Haitian was recently beaten and stabbed to death by 10 men in Santa Caterina state. Similar incidents have been reported in Sao Paulo.

    “As the (economic) crisis continues, I am concerned that the number of these xenophobic attacks will rise,” Santoro told IRIN.

    Reports of unemployment, a weakened currency and acts of violence against Haitians do not appear to affect Etienne. Playing dominos in the garden of the Rio Branco shelter, he shrugged off such concerns.

    “I came to Brazil to work. Whatever I can find here, it will be better than Haiti,” he said.

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  • Climate change may drown cities

    People in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, prefer to commute in three-wheeled autorickshaws, taxis and buses that run on compressed natural gas (CNG), in their bid to slow down global warming.

    CNG produces a lower level of greenhouse gases and is an environmentally cleaner alternative to petrol. Dhaka's residents are among the most vulnerable to global warming and don't want to become "climate terrorists".

    The city is among more than 3,000 identified by the UN-Habitat's State of the World's Cities 2008/09 as facing the prospect of sea level rise and surge-induced flooding. The report warns policymakers, planners and the world at large that few coastal cities will be spared the effects of global warming.

    Asia accounts for more than half the most vulnerable cities, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean (27 percent) and Africa (15 percent); two-thirds of the cities are in Europe, and almost one-fifth of all cities in North America are in Low Elevation Coastal Zones (LECZ).

    During the 1900s, sea levels rose by an estimated 17cm; global mean projections for sea level rise between 1990 and 2080 range from 22cm to 34cm, according to the UN-Habitat researchers.

    The report points out that by 2070, urban populations in river delta cities, such as Dhaka, Kolkata (India), Yangon (Myanmar), and Hai Phong (on the coast near Hanoi in Vietnam), which already experience a high risk of flooding, will join the group of populations most exposed to this danger. Port cities in Bangladesh, China, Thailand, Vietnam, and India will have joined the ranks of cities whose assets are most at risk.

    African coastal cities that could be severely be affected by rising sea levels include Abidjan (Cote d'Ivoire), Accra (Ghana), Alexandria (Egypt), Algiers (Algeria), Cape Town (South Africa), Casablanca (Morocco), Dakar (Senegal), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Djibouti (Djibouti), Durban (South Africa), Freetown (Sierra Leone), Lagos (Nigeria), Libreville (Gabon), Lome (Togo), Luanda (Angola), Maputo (Mozambique), Mombasa (Kenya), Port Louis (Mauritius), and Tunis (Tunisia).

    Dhaka is wedged between huge rivers like the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, with hundreds of tributaries swollen with increasing glacial melt from the Himalayan ranges as a result of soaring global temperatures.

    "The elevation in Dhaka ranges between two and 13 metres above sea level, which means that even a slight rise in sea level is likely to engulf large parts of the city. Moreover, high urban growth rates and high urban densities have already made Dhaka more susceptible to human-induced environmental disasters," said the UN-Habitat report.

    ''The sheer number of people living in the city means that the negative consequences of climate change are likely to be felt by a large number of people, especially the urban poor who live in flood-prone and water-logged areas''

    "With an urban growth rate of more than four percent annually, Dhaka, which already hosts more than 13 million people, is one of the fastest growing cities in Southern Asia, and is projected to accommodate more than 20 million by 2025.

    "The sheer number of people living in the city means that the negative consequences of climate change are likely to be felt by a large number of people, especially the urban poor who live in flood-prone and water-logged areas."

    A total 634 million people in the world live in LECZ that lie at or below 10 metres above sea level, according to a recent report, Planet Prepare, by World Vision, a Christian relief, development and advocacy organisation. Although LECZ constitute only two percent of the earth's landmass, they contain 10 percent of its population and have a higher rate of urbanisation than the rest of the world.

    Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the UN, notes his concern about the prospect of large-scale devastation in his foreword to the UN-Habitat report, saying: "Cities embody some of society's most pressing challenges, from pollution and disease to unemployment and lack of adequate shelter. But cities are also venues where rapid, dramatic change is not just possible but expected."

    Dhaka is preparing for flood protection. The government, prompted by frequent flooding in the 1980s, has already completed embankments, reinforced concrete walls and pumping stations in the most densely populated part of the city.

    The UN report cautioned that Dhaka's solutions should also take into consideration unresolved development problems, such as the growing slum population, which has doubled in the last decade and shows no signs of abating.

    The World Vision report pointed out that other urban centres not physically challenged by global warming would also face tremendous challenges, with the possible influx of "environmental refugees" from affected cities.

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has urged global greenhouse gas emission reductions of 50 percent to 85 percent by 2050, based on 2000 emissions, to avoid a 2°Celsius increase in global mean temperature.

    Such an increase is expected to destroy 30 percent to 40 percent of all known species, generate bigger, fiercer and more frequent heat waves and droughts, and more intense weather events like floods and cyclones.

    The IPCC and activists have called on the global community to focus on preventing global warming from crossing the perilous 2°C threshold, which requires keeping atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations below 350ppm (parts per million).

    "The problem is, they [concentrations] already stand at 385ppm (2008), rising by 2ppm annually," said the World Vision report. "Since there are no rewind buttons for running down emitted greenhouse gas stocks, implicational reasoning suggests immediate and stringent emissions cuts."

    Eminent scientists, such as James E. Hansen, who heads NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, are warning that even the 2-degree threshold may likely not be safe enough to avoid "global disaster".

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  • Climate change's threat to water needs more study

    Models to predict the impact of climate change on potable water and the management of wastewater are needed to deal with the expected increase in water-related illnesses as result of global warming, says a new policy brief by the United Nations University (UNU).

    "We need greater investment in the development of models to aid decision-making, reduce uncertainty and augment costly monitoring programmes," said Corinne Wallace, a leading water health researcher at UNU's International Network on Water, Environment and Health, and one of the authors of a new policy brief.

    "Combining these efforts with a vulnerability map for water-associated diseases can form the basis for evidence-based policy development," she said. "Validated models need to be developed that will predict the impact of climate change on water and wastewater infrastructure, water availability, water quality and waterborne/water-associated diseases."

    The results could be used for policy development, intervention, adaptation and mitigation purposes, as well as determining the effects on achieving Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and global migration patterns.

    Climate change is expected to bring more frequent and intense rain to many places, leading to floods and shallow subsurface water flow, which can mobilise pathogens and other contaminants, the brief noted. 

    Higher temperatures could also change the rates of reproduction, survival and infectivity of various pathogens. "Even if not directly linked to health, these threats can have a devastating effect on the ecosystem, indirectly threatening water supplies."

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that global warming will affect not only the function of water infrastructure, but operation and management practices as well, according to the UNU brief.
     

    ''Sea-level rise will affect groundwater aquifers in coastal areas and flood low-lying areas, reducing freshwater availability. It is estimated that by 2030 the risk of diarrhoea will be up to 10 percent higher in some countries due to climate change''

    "Generally, water treatment plants and distribution systems are built to withstand weather events of a given return period or probability (e.g. the 100-year flood). Under changing climate conditions, these return periods are likely to alter, increasing the likelihood of and frequency at which drinking- and wastewater-infrastructure systems will be overwhelmed."

    Water and sanitation services need to be scaled up to address the impact of climate change, the authors of the brief said. Flooding can also affect chemical storage and sewage facilities, compromising water supply quality. 

    Sea-level rise will affect groundwater aquifers in coastal areas and flood low-lying areas, reducing freshwater availability. It is estimated that by 2030 the risk of diarrhoea will be up to 10 percent higher in some countries due to climate change.

    Greater migration as a result of water stress or increased food insecurity means that diseases will be transported to other regions, where they may or may not be able to survive, potentially exposing host communities to new diseases. "Policies at various levels and their implementation, however, do not reflect this principle," the authors noted.

    "Improved access to clean water can reduce diarrhoea and waterborne diseases by at least 25 percent; improved sanitation is accompanied by more than a 30 percent reduction in child mortality. This urgent global challenge is pragmatically achievable, politically feasible and ethically important."

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  • "Hot topic" - special journal issue on climate and migration reviewed

    The October issue of the Forced Migration Review (FMR), a journal published three times a year by Oxford University's Refugee Studies Centre, is a 38-article buffet on climate change and displacement, a “hot topic” according to Jean-Francois Durieux, a lecturer at the centre.

    The latest FMR issue provides snapshots of current debates on people displaced by environmental factors and climate change.

    The environmental and migration disciplines have been wrangling over the real numbers of people fleeing natural disasters as the impact of climate change intensifies; how to define a person displaced by environmental factors; what kind of protection can be afforded to such persons; whether those affected should be relocated; whether they should rather be helped to adapt to their changed environment, among various other issues.

    Several articles in the journal underline the need for more research to understand and respond to the crisis, which could affect least 50 million people by 2010.

    Since the 1970s, experts have debated the extent to which climate change can drive migration. Some predict waves of "environmental refugees" while others are more sceptical, researchers Olivia Dun and François Gemenne said in an article in the journal.

    "Generally speaking, the former, who tend to isolate environmental factors as a major driving force of migration, can be described as 'alarmists' and the latter, who tend to insist on the complexity of the migration process, as 'sceptics'.

    "Interestingly, alarmists usually come from disciplines such as environmental, disaster and conflict studies, while sceptics belong almost exclusively to the field of forced migration and refugee studies. Unsurprisingly, reports linking climate change with security issues usually side with alarmists," they commented.

    "Just as most classical theories on migration tend to ignore the environment as a driver of migration, most theories on environmental governance ignore migration flows. Bridging this gap should be the first priority of a research agenda in this field."

    It’s not all policy. In some of the articles, real human stories and quotes bring the issues to life. "If the water comes I am not afraid. I can swim, my sister can swim and we have a boat; but the rice can't swim, and my father's house can't swim either," said Manuel Modena, 12, who lives near the Río Coco River in northern Nicaragua.

    About 70,000 people live along the Río Coco's 700km length. When the rains come and the water level starts rising, the people upriver sometimes have only two hours to warn those living downstream. The community has now set up a chain of 40 radio stations to keep everyone informed about the daily amount of rain and the water level in the river.

    There are other positive stories about adapting to climate change. People in flood-prone southwest Bangladesh have developed ingenious floating rafts with a bamboo base, on which water hyacinth is piled and then covered by other plant material or coconut husk to form a seed bed ready for planting, writes James Pender, development and natural resources advisor for the social development programme of the Anglican/Presbyterian Church of Bangladesh.

    These then become floating gardens (called ‘baira’), Pender explains, cultivated in the rainy season and immune to flood.

    Other interesting facts abound – just one example: some semi-nomadic ethnic groups in Iran are unable to migrate to summer grounds as mist and fog that once nourished pastures have not appeared for several years.

    Leading academics, researchers and activists, some affiliated to policy think-tanks, non-governmental organisations and United Nations agencies, have contributed the 38 articles in the journal, which can be accessed at: www.fmreview.org

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