Weberson Santiago/VEJA

According to the recent UN refugee agency Global Trends report, Brazil received about 80,000 new requests for asylum in 2018,  more than double the  2017 requests. More than three-quarters -- 61,000 —came from Venezuelans. But between 2010 and the end of 2018, Brazil granted asylum to only 18 Venezuelans, Igarapé Institute and the press reported. More than 168,000 Venezuelans are now in Brazil according to UN refugee agency,  and the influx continues.

So, it comes as great news that Bernardo Laferté, coordinator of Brazil’s National Committee for Refugees (CONARE), the agency responsible for analyzing asylum seekers’ applications announced, on June 19, that CONARE will expedite the processing of asylum claims for Venezuelans. Instead of requiring each Venezuelan to show a well-founded fear of being persecuted, CONARE will now automatically extend asylum, on request, to all Venezuelans who approach the border. This is because it now considers that the human rights violations in Venezuela are threatening everyone’s life, safety or freedom.

CONARE’s move to expedite Venezuelans’ claims—which in the past was only applied to Syrian asylum seekers arriving in Brazil—makes sense both as a humanitarian gesture and a recognition of rights violations by Venezuelan authorities. Brazil is the first country in the region to grant automatic asylum to Venezuelans seeking refuge abroad.

The usual standard for asylum-seekers under international law requires them to show a well-founded fear of persecution. Certainly, many Venezuelans have fled political persecution. But in Venezuela, the severe humanitarian crisis, together with brutal government-sponsored repression, presents a classic case for an expanded standard to offer more comprehensive protection. Announcing the new policy, which has yet to be publicized, Laferté said that Brazil has come to recognize a "serious and widespread threat to human rights" in Venezuela. In an August 2018 preliminary ruling over an effort by Roraima state government to close the border, a Brazilian Supreme Court judge ruled that Brazil has bound itself to respect an expanded refugee definition under the 1984 Cartagena Declaration; Brazilian law now recognizes as refugees “those who are forced to leave due to grave and generalized human rights violations.” 

In Venezuela, the health system is in collapse. Levels of maternal and infant mortality rose in 2016, according to the latest available official data. Preventable diseases are spreading. Infectious diseases are surging. A severe food shortage undermines Venezuelans’ ability to secure adequate nutrition. Instead of addressing the humanitarian emergency as a top priority, Venezuelan authorities have tried to suppress information about it.

CONARE’s change of policy acknowledges that deteriorating conditions make it unsafe for Venezuelans to be forced back home and will make an immediate difference for the Venezuelans seeking refuge in Brazil.

Although asylum seekers already have access to public services and work permits in Brazil, employers have often mistrusted Venezuelans’ permits, believing their provisional status doesn’t allow them to work. That kind of misconception can land Venezuelans in the informal sector, where generally they are much more vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation, as well as to human trafficking. They are also less likely to report abuses to competent authorities. CONARE’s fast-tracking has the potential to reduce— substantially—Venezuelans’ vulnerability to exploitation.

What CONARE’s move won’t do, of course, is to stop the repression in Venezuela. While at least four million Venezuelans have left recent years, President Nicolás Maduro clings to repressive policies and practices.

That is why international and multilateral pressure remains key. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet is scheduled to present a report on Venezuela, based in part on a visit she made there last week, in Geneva on July 5. She has the opportunity and responsibility to be the voice of Venezuelan victims whose rights—including the rights to freedom from torture and access to health care and food—have been violated. She should seize it and clearly expose Venezuelan authorities’ responsibility for the spiraling crisis.

Venezuelans stranded in Brazil will gain important protections from CONARE’s recognition of their nation’s humanitarian and human rights crisis—and if enough countries and international agencies shine a spotlight on the Maduro government’s rights violations and failure to address the humanitarian crisis, those Venezuelans may one day get to go home.