Talking to refugees from Syria, Iraq, Congo, and other troubled countries in the Greek island of Chios almost two years ago brought me close to tears several times. They told me about life under war-torn countries or living under abusive, authoritarian regimes, and about the almost unimaginable hardship they had endured to flee, often with the hope of providing a new future for their children. With my sadness, also came anger, at those who persecuted them and those in receiving countries who failed to recognize their humanity.
The refugees I talked to invariably expressed their fear of xenophobic attacks. In Athens, I visited refugee families who were afraid to leave home. Racially-motivated attacks were on the rise when I was there. Refugees felt isolated and wished for a chance to integrate into European societies. Many felt very keenly the hostility some of their new Greek neighbors felt towards them, including a tendency to scapegoat them for problems like crime and unemployment.
I could not but think of Greece when I heard of the August 18 attack against Venezuelans in the border town of Pacaraima. Residents attacked Venezuelans living on the street, burnt their few possessions, and forced about 1,200 of them back into Venezuela. The police looked on and did nothing to stop the attack.
In Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima state, Venezuelans living in shelters or on the street said some people insult them from passing cars.
While the federal government has made significant efforts to respond to the inflow of people desperate for food, basic health care, and freedom, it needs to do much more to integrate Venezuelan refugees into society, including providing access to education. The government also needs to speed up its program to voluntarily relocate them to other states. But first, Brazilian authorities should take decisive action against xenophobic attacks. Prosecutors should file charges against those who use violence against Venezuelans and urge police’s internal affairs department to punish officers who fail to perform their duty.
There is not just hate in Roraima. Many locals share their food with Venezuelans and others have opened their homes. This is our chance, as a country, to show our compassion.