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Why Afghan refugees in Brazil are making dangerous US journeys

‘They were hoping to get a refuge, and they were offered the floor of the airport.’

Afghan refugees pray in a corner of the makeshift camp that has been erected in the São Paolo airport. Jeomark Roberto/TNH
Afghan refugees pray in a corner of the makeshift camp that has been erected in the São Paolo airport.

On a recent January day, some 80 Afghan refugees camped out in Terminal 2 of São Paulo’s international airport. Those who had just arrived made their way to a set of shelters improvised out of blankets draped over the airport’s metal seats, joining others who had been there for as long as two weeks. For the time-being, this was to be home.

A month after the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, Brazil became one of the few nations issuing humanitarian visas to persecuted Afghans. As of December 2022, 6,302 visas had been granted and about 4,000 Afghans had arrived in the South American country.

But with no accompanying support programme set up by former president Jair Bolsonaro’s administration, aid has largely depended on local government initiatives and the engagement of civil society, leaving Afghans struggling with a host of difficulties on arrival. 

Since the 30 October election of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, refugee organisations have been waiting for a change in that landscape. During his previous tenure, from 2003 to 2010, Lula implemented a range of policies aimed at integrating migrants and refugees. 

Officials from the month-old Lula administration have signalled that an early priority will be the creation of a long-awaited National Policy on Migration, Refuge, and Statelessness. The policy, they say, will not only allocate more funds to assist the incoming refugees, but also give them better conditions to remain in Brazil and integrate – offering shelter, providing language classes, and helping them find work.

The lack of integration thus far has been a major concern for refugee advocates, who point to the increasing number of refugees speaking of Brazil as a gateway to the United States or Canada. More than 2,000 Afghans arrived at the US border last year, a trip that requires an arduous and extremely dangerous overland journey through the Darién Gap and Mexico. 

Swany Zenobini, who co-founded the Coletivo Frente Afegã (Afghan Front Collective) in August 2022 to help the newly arrived refugees, told The New Humanitarian that heading to the United States was not the refugees’ initial plan.

“At first, people planned to stay in Brazil. But the federal government under Bolsonaro did not give them the slightest dignity,” Zenobini said. “They were hoping to get a refuge, and they were offered the floor of the airport. That is why many people now want to make the journey to the US.”

Growing Afghan arrivals

The informal refugee camp at the airport has become a stark symbol of the Bolsonaro’s administration’s lack of preparation.

The first refugees arrived in late 2021, in small enough numbers that local shelters could accommodate them. “But the way to Brazil became an established route, people informed their acquaintances about it, and the number of refugees began to grow, especially after June [2022],” recalled Maria Beatriz Nogueira, head of office in São Paulo for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.

At its height, in October, the airport refugee camp hosted as many as 300 Afghans a night. Several factors contributed to that chaotic scene. Nogueira noted the historical deficit of refugee shelters in Brazil, with no units in Guarulhos, where the airport is located – only in São Paulo. Most of the existing facilities are already dedicated to the homeless.

While the worst of the overcrowding has been alleviated with the addition of 300 beds in refugee shelters near São Paulo, challenges remain, particularly in terms of who is prepared to pay to help the refugees.

“There is still a deficit,” Nogueira told The New Humanitarian. “Public money has been invested, especially from cities and the state, but not so much from the federal government.”

Refugees from Afghanistan fare worse than other nationalities recently welcomed in Brazil, like Syrians and Venezuelans.

“Many Afghans arrive with large families,” Nogueira explained. “They do not speak Portuguese and are afraid of exploring the city. Everything is more difficult because there is no Afghan community consolidated here.”

Local aid groups fill the gap 

With no contacts in their new country and scarce resources, many Afghan refugees have taken to remaining at the airport and waiting for humanitarian aid. While most are able to find a place to stay within a few weeks, some have ended up spending two months at the airport. 

“I have been at the airport assisting them since August [2022],” said Zenobini. “At the beginning, they had no food, so we had a daily task of visiting each nearby restaurant and asking for their help. We also needed to raise money to buy hygiene kits.”

In the early weeks of mass arrivals, refugees were going weeks without being able to bathe, until charity groups made arrangements with nearby hotels to provide access to showers.

Aline Porcina de Souza Sobral co-founded the support group with Zenobini. Along with her husband and their community’s sheikh, she has been doing her best to welcome the Afghan refugees who arrive at the airport and provide them with a sense of community. 

“Look at my husband greeting those two young gentlemen,” Sobral told The New Humanitarian as a few Afghans made their way to the tent site after deboarding a flight from Iran. “They are happy to be welcomed by a Muslim brother here in Brazil. People are telling them that there are no Muslims here.” 

Moments later, the sheikh took his prayer mat to a slightly more private corner of the crowded terminal and called the men to prayer. At the entrance of the camp, dozens of hot meals had just arrived and were being distributed to the refugees.

Guarulhos’s city government and civic organisations have been giving the refugees lunch and dinner. Breakfast is provided by the Coletivo, though Sobral was scrambling on the day The New Humanitarian visited the airport camp after discovering they were seven meals short.

A volunteer arrived to tell Sobral that a shelter in the central zone of São Paulo could welcome six refugees. She consulted her notebook and identified the most suitable family.

“It took very long until more beds were offered to them,” Sobral said. “At the beginning, the government tried to place them at a homeless shelter. The group that was taken there was so disturbed by that sight that it refused to leave the bus.”

An anxious arrival

Ahmad Reza Hussain Zada, an English professor from Kabul, arrived with his wife and six-year-old daughter on 31 December 2022.

Getting the Brazilian humanitarian visa was no easy process. It required the family to spend nearly a year in Iran, where they had to pay a hefty fine for exceeding the limit of their one-month temporary visa.

The Brazilian embassies in Tehran and Islamabad froze new visa requests in March 2022, claiming they were overwhelmed with applications. The backlog has left an unknown number of refugees stuck in similar limbo in Pakistan and Iran. 

“I have been almost one year without work, and the penalty applied by the Iranian authorities left me without any money,” Zada told The New Humanitarian. “We now need help to stand on our feet again. We only need shelter, Portuguese lessons, and a school for my daughter. After that, we will be able to be productive members of Brazilian society.”

Zada is half Tajik, half Hazara, something that made him a target of prejudice and potential violence in Pashtun-dominated Afghanistan.

“We never know if we will be able to get home alive after work,” he said. “In Brazil, we do not feel that our lives are in danger.”

But daily life at the airport is not easy. His six-year-old daughter has been complaining about the mosquitoes and about sleeping on the floor. She recently developed a cough.

“She gets frustrated at times and asks me to do something [about our situation]. I have been continually contacting organisations to get a shelter,” he said.

Zada studied English and Education in a well-reputed college in Bangalore, India. He should be able to easily find work as an English teacher in Brazil, but the validation of academic documents is a long and bureaucratic process. 

UNHCR has been working with universities for years to promote better access to higher education for refugees in Brazil. Part of that process involves speeding up the legalisation of foreign diplomas – a fundamental way to integrate Afghan refugees more quickly.

“Half of the Afghan refugees we assisted have a higher education degree,” Nogueira said. “They want to work in their [specialised] fields in Brazil, and that can be decisive to dissuade them to embark on the dangerous journey to North America.” 

Despite all the hurdles, official data released by the Ministry of Labour shows that 500 Afghans currently have regular employment in Brazil – an indication that targeted integration efforts would likely be successful.

For refugees like Zada, such assistance and progress can’t come soon enough. Above all, he hopes to avoid the risky journey to the United States. 

“That would be my last, last option, really,” he said. “Going without documents to the US is very dangerous. You cannot trust the coyotes, your family and your money are not safe.”

Edited by Abby Seiff.

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