Brazil Hides Humanitarian Emergency in Acre

With a “refugee” camp holding over 800 Haitians in inhuman conditions,
Conectas charges Brazil is covering up an international crisis

by Conectas Human Rights (for Haiti Liberte)
The Brazilian government has for
months now been playing a word game – between “immigration” and “refugee” – to
minimize the severity of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the small town of
Brasiléia, in Brazil’s northern state of Acre on the border with Bolivia, some
240 kilometers southwest of the state capital Rio Branco.
than 830 immigrants – nearly all of them Haitians – are living inside a
warehouse built for just 200 people, in extremely unhygienic conditions. They
are required to share just 10 lavatories and 8 showers, where there is no soap
and no toothpaste, sewage leaks outside in the open air, and people have been
packed for months inside an area of 200 square meters under a metal roof, with
black plastic sheeting for curtains, in temperatures that can reach 104 degrees
Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). The local hospital reports that 90% of the
patients from the camp have diarrhea. The shelter is already operating at four
times capacity, and 40 new Haitians arrive every day.
unhealthy, inhuman even,” said João Paulo Charleaux, coordinator of
communication at Conectas, who visited the camp. “The Haitians spend the night
lying closely together, in sweltering heat, on pieces of foam that were once
portable mattresses, surrounded by bags, shoes and other personal belongings.
The lavatories are flooded with fetid water, there is no soap for people to
wash their hands and nearly everyone we spoke to complained of abdominal pain
and diarrhea. Many spend months in these conditions.”
organized a mission to Brasiléia from August 4 to 6, when it recorded 20
interviews with people living in the shelter. The interviews were conducted in
Haitian Kreyòl by Gabrielle Apollon, a guest researcher of Conectas. Apollon
had already interviewed 27 Haitians who managed to get to São Paulo, in a total
of 20 hours of recorded testimonies. In these interviews, the Haitians tell
their story of how they arrived in Brazil after spending as much as US$4,000 to
middlemen for the journey from Haiti.
Haitians also claim that the “humanitarian visa” process at the Brazilian
Embassy in Port-au-Prince is not functioning as promised – middlemen charge
fees, there is no clear information about the procedure, it is difficult to get
an appointment, and the authorities have been requesting résumés to give
preference to so-called “qualified immigration” to Brazil, without taking into
account the “humanitarian” nature that these visas, according to the Brazilian
government, are supposed to have.
can say that what we are experiencing here in Brasiléia is not fit for human
beings,” said Osanto Georges, a 19-year-old Haitian. “They may as well have put
us back in Haiti just after the earthquake: the same filth, the same type of
shelter, water, food. This hurts me and scares me. I knew that the journey here
would be tough, because you’re dealing with criminals, but to get to Brazil and
be put in a place like this is unbelievable.”
the overcrowded camp, fights are constantly breaking out among people in the
long lines. “The day we arrived, the police drew their weapons to control a
disturbance,” said Charleaux. “It is clearly too complex a task to be handled
the way it is being handled. The situation in the camp is similar in many
respects to what I saw myself when I was in Haiti, shortly after the earthquake
in 2010. It is a regional matter that involves at least five countries: Brazil,
Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Haiti. We shall request a thematic hearing in the
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS, and we shall submit our
findings to two independent UN rapporteurs, one on migrants and another on the
human rights situation in Haiti.”
of Conectas also interviewed, on site, doctors from the hospital in Brasiléia,
police officers, staff at the Federal Prosecutor’s Office and the Child
Protective Services office, government officials in Rio Branco, and several
residents of Brasiléia. Conectas has also used the Freedom of Information Law
on two occasions to obtain accurate information on the situation from the
federal government in Brasília. In most cases, the names of the sources have
been withheld at the express request of the government employees who do not
have the formal authority to speak on behalf of the organizations they work
“90% have diarrhea”
Nearly all the Haitians
interviewed by Conectas between August 4 and 6 complained of abdominal pain and
diarrhea. Conectas visited the Raimundo Chaar Hospital, which has 46 beds and
is responsible for handling emergency cases in the town. According to members
of the hospital staff, there have been outbreaks of diarrhea that have sent 40
Haitians to the emergency room all at the same time. One of the employees
explained that the hospital does not receive any additional funding to treat
the inflow of Haitians. “The politicians are handling this as if it were a
diplomatic issue, but in the meantime, every day, we are importing misery and
sickness without being able to cope with it,” said the employee, revealing some
of the prejudice and rejection in the town that is cause for concern. The
information was confirmed by the attending physicians who confessed to being
alarmed by the inflow of new patients. They explained that they receive an
average of four Haitians per day, although when Conectas visited the hospital,
10 Haitians from the camp were admitted for treatment in the morning alone.
Treatment is administered without the help of translators and, according to
sources at the hospital, “90% of the cases are for diarrhea, and 10% are for
respiratory illnesses.” The staff responsible for administering the treatment
said they had never been inside the camp and were surprised when they were told
about the hygienic conditions there.
“It’ll get worse”
According to the camp
coordinator, Damião Borges of the Acre state government, the camp has been
receiving 40 new Haitians per day, even though the most recent structural
alterations were made four months ago. He explained that the increased number
of new arrivals, combined with the reduced number of jobs available at
companies that used to look for workers at the camp, is creating social chaos
for Haitians in Brazil. “This needs to come to an end, because we have run out
of resources,” Borges said. “The state of Acre has a debt of R$700,000
(US$292,404) with the company that provides food to the shelter, and the
deadline for payment is Aug. 15. We urgently need help from the federal
government. In two years and eight months, we have received R$4.5 million
(US$1.88 million) from the state government and R$2 million (US$840,000) from the
federal government. But the real burden is being carried by the town of
Brasiléia. This should not be borne a small and modest municipality like this
one.” Conectas was informed, during its visit, that the state of Acre has not
received any funds from the federal government to look after the Haitian
immigrants for three months. More seriously, no new funds are anticipated.
Complaints about food and water
Most of the complaints received
at the camp are related to the quality of food and water. The site has just one
source of drinking water, an industrial filter with three taps. According to
the camp administrators, the abdominal pains are caused by the chlorine in the
water, which “causes diarrhea for three days in people who have lots of amoebas
in their bodies.” Another common complaint was the poor quality of the food,
which can be explained by the difference in palate between Brazilians and
Haitians. Even though this is the reason for the complaints, little has been
done to substantially alter the menu. Meals are served in aluminum containers
as the military police stands guard over the line of more than 800 people.
Reports of fights among people waiting in line are frequent.
Unaccompanied and undocumented children
Another place visited by
Conectas was the Child Protective Services office in Brasiléia, where 20
Haitian children who are undocumented or separated from their parents have been
registered. However, on Aug. 7, when the mission of Conectas had already
returned to Rio Branco, five Haitian children arrived at the camp. “We are way
beyond our modest capacities,” said one of the staff members at the office.
“This, for me, is the worst it’s been since the Haitians started to arrive.”
the increased workload, said the source, there has been no additional
allocation of funds, material items or employees since the start of the crisis.
In all, five counselors work at the office, handling all the problems involving
children and adolescents in the town. “All of a sudden, a small town like this
has to cope with a phenomenon of this scale, without even receiving any
training,” added the source. Among the Haitians, there are numerous accounts of
theft of documents – and other belongings – on the journey to Brazil.
Local community
“Brasiléia is a powder keg just
waiting to explode,” an official from the Acre state government told Conectas
in Rio Branco. “The residents of the town have had enough, and this could
result in acts of hostility.” The statement reflects the state of mind of the
inhabitants of this small town of just 20,000 people. Although the residents
have expressed sympathy and solidarity with the Haitians, their weariness and
discontent have been growing more apparent. The inhabitants of the camp compete
with the local residents for places at the town’s public health clinics,
supermarkets, bakeries, banks, pharmacies, post office, and other public
Another element of concern is
the disproportion between the number of employees and the number of inhabitants
at the camp. Over the course of the three days that Conectas spent in the town,
only two employees were working full time at the camp, catering to 832 Haitians
in a small trailer with a computer and a fan. Despite their dedication and
willingness to help, the employees are local residents who do not speak Creole
and do not have the necessary training or any prior experience in handling
humanitarian issues. As such, they apply to this complex situation the same
logic used to settle small town problems. Despite the constant trips to the
town by members of the Acre state government, which is based in Rio Branco, a
group of employees familiar with humanitarian crises is urgently needed to
oversee the camp.
Neither the camp nor the
hospital has a translator. The employees try to speak Spanish, but the vast
majority of Haitians only speak Kreyòl. Instructions for waiting in line or
submitting documents are shouted, which increases the confusion and anxiety of
the Haitians, who very often crowd around and fight for a place in front of the
small military police trailer that serves as the camp administration office.
There are no electronic ticket or loudspeaker systems at the camp. The few
posters in Kreyòl are handwritten. There are no posters with information about
STD/AIDS or hygiene, or leaflets about their rights, or any other communication
material with orientation for new arrivals.
Refugee Status vs. Humanitarian Visa
All the inhabitants of the camp
are officially applying for refugee status, following the orientation given by
the Brazilian government. However, after spending six months analyzing the
applications, and extending this period for a further six months, the same
government denied refugee status to all the Haitians.
legal arrangement, part of a policy that the Brazilian government has called a
“humanitarian visa,” prevents Haitians arriving in the country from being
deported, since the law bans the deportation of refugee applicants for the
duration of the application process. However, this improvisation is allowing a
serious humanitarian crisis – triggered by a situation of internal violence,
followed by several natural disasters, the last of which was an earthquake that
killed some 220,000 people in Haiti – to be treated like a simple immigration
problem in Brazil.
main consequence of this is an improvised, amateur, and uncoordinated approach
that has overburdened the small municipality of Brasiléia and its population,
when, in fact, it should be being overseen by specialists in humanitarian
emergencies of this complexity,” said Charleaux. “From a humanitarian point of
view, the name of the visa for these Haitians is now less urgent than the
brutal conditions they face in the camp. Indeed, this humanitarian visa policy
is anything but humanitarian.”
Conectas is a non-governmental and not-for-profit organization founded
in São Paulo/Brazil in September 2001 whose mission is to promote the
realization of human rights and consolidation of the rule of law in the Global
South – Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It seeks a more just world, with a
truly global, diverse, and effective human rights movement, where national
institutions and the international order are more transparent, effective and
A view of the warehouse where 832 Haitians are presently housed. More
arrive every day.

In the overcrowded camp in Brasiléia, fights are constantly breaking
out among people in the long lines.