Just before he left office last month, former Justice Minister Eugênio Aragão gave a hopeful prognosis about Brazil’s capacity to shelter refugees. With international financial help, he said, Brazil could take “up to 100,000 Syrians, in groups of 20,000 a year.” Just last Thursday, Brazil's Foreign Ministry issued a statement reaffirming Brazil’s “willingness to continue collaborating, as it has in the past, by receiving immigrants in our territory."
As we celebrate World Refugee Day today, Brazilians can be proud of the initial steps the government has taken – in the midst of a historic political crisis -- to protect people fleeing war and persecution. No matter what our political future holds, we should stay that course.
In 2013, Brazil’s National Committee for Refugees (CONARE) authorized the country’s embassies to issue humanitarian visas to people trying to escape Syria’s armed conflict. “It is without a doubt an example other countries should follow,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Brazil, Andrés Ramirez, said at the time.
Brazil has issued 8,450 humanitarian visas to refugees from Syria since the war there erupted. More than 2,000 have made their way here so far.
While the number of Syrians who have sought refuge in Brazil is small compared with the 4.84 million who have arrived in the countries neighboring Syria, Ramirez credits Brazil for having “maintained an open-door policy for Syrian refugees.”
With inadequate refugee resettlement and other support from countries in Europe and North America, the countries neighboring Syria have begun closing their doors to asylum seekers trying to cross their borders.
Some 70,000 Syrians are stranded in a stretch of desert behind a bulldozed berm at Jordan’s border with Syria. And, since mid-August 2015, Turkey has been pushing back Syrians at its border. In separate incidents this spring, Turkish border guards fired on refugees approaching the border, wounding 14 and killing five – including a child.
Brazil has a chance to make a difference. If it were actually to back up Aragão’s pledge when a high-level meeting on international responsibility sharing takes place as the the UN General Assembly session in September, and commit to resettling 100,000 Syrian refugees, it could shame powerful northern states -- that are not now doing their fair share -- to do more.
Brazil’s open-door policy should not only continue but include improving our ability to promote real integration, uphold refugees' rights, and provide targeted services to those at risk of abuse, discrimination, and neglect. A UNHCR evaluation of Brazil’s integration of refugees who have already been resettled here (mostly from within the region), indicates that there is room for improvement, but also that 85% of the 653 refugees resettled in Brazil remain in the country, the highest percentage of any country in the Southern Cone. This shows that Brazil has made a good start upon which it can build.
Who knows? Successfully integrated refugees might even be a bonus for Brazil. An infusion of fresh blood and energy might help kick-start Brazil’s lagging economy. As Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said about the Syrians in Europe, “An influx of people with the proven perseverance and wit to escape war and repression back home and navigate the deadly hazards along the route to Europe would seem to provide an injection of energy and drive that Europe arguably needs.” The same may well be true for Brazil.
Accepting refugees isn’t a matter of charity; it’s a matter of international solidarity and responsibility sharing. By welcoming the world’s refugees and committing wholeheartedly to their reception and integration, Brazil can be a global leader in displaying both compassion and a real commitment to human rights protection. Brazil has made a good start; let’s now take it to the next level.