The site dedicated to Brazilian women of African descent
Note from BW of Brazil: So Brazil is supposed to be the wonderful paradise where all the races mix, everybody gets along and everyone is equal, right? Well, it’s no longer a secret that the country has some serious issues to deal with in relation to to the image it likes to promote of itself and the reality. And some groups who have been arriving in the country that they decided to call their new homes are finding this out the hard way. To be sure, Brazil has long had issues in terms of the treatment of its own black population, murder rates that are fitting for a country at war, murderous police and a recurring problem with lynch mob violence but with the experiences of recent immigrants, the image of the country that welcomes all is exposing another layer of a centuries old determinant of difference: skin color. In the case of immigrants, we know that skin color and country of origin play a huge role in how they will treated as we know that there are numerous immigrants from Latin America, Asian and Europe also living in Brazil but yet we never hear of these immigrants being treated in the harsh manner that seems to be reserved for Africans and Haitians. In past articles we have covered a number of reports detailing the experiences of Haitian and African immigrants (as well as black Americans and Brits) and its great to see that the issue is receiving more attention.
Black immigrants coming to Brazil are confronted with ‘Brazilian racism’, says sociologist
By Paul Hebmüller
For Alex André Vargem, Africans and Haitians are treated differently in relation to immigrants of other nationalities coming to Brazil; the myth of the welcoming country of prevents self-criticism, he evaluates
The idea that Brazilians are warm and welcomes all immigrants doesn’t correspond to the reality of the cases of Haitians and Africans, victims of racism in Brazil. So says the sociologist Alex André Vargem, 35, a member of IDDAB, the Instituto do Desenvolvimento da Diáspora Africana no Brasil (Institute of Development of the African Diaspora in Brazil). For Vargem, in their countries of origin, these immigrants faced different ethnic issues from those arising from “racismo à brasileira” (Brazilian-styled racism), and it is here that they learn about concrete experiences of discrimination. “I believe that there is still resistance to making a self-criticism, and so the society clings to that image of that we welcome all well,” he says.
Sociologist lists some of the cases of violence that he has been collecting throughout his eleven years of experience in the area:
“Whoever is in that environment knows that they aren’t isolated actions: it’s violence that repeats itself at any moment,” says Vargem and concludes “it’s a “violence that maybe the person does not manifest against black Brazilian bodies, but demonstrate against African and Haitian bodies.”
A graduate from the PUC in São Paulo and with a degree in Direito Internacional dos Refugiados pelo International Institute of Humanitarian Law (Itália) (International Law of Refugees by the International Institute of Humanitarian Law (Italy), Vargem recognizes that he ends up being “the irritating one” in the immigration debate for raising these and other cases and says that, even with the creation of new laws and instances in public organs , it is still necessary to wait to see whether these measures will bring results.
Skepticism is also based on the lack of concrete data on the number of immigrants living in Brazil. An example: it’s possible to know that there are about six thousand African students in undergraduate and graduate programs in Brazilian public universities because of bilateral agreements. However, it is unknown how many are in private universities. Without knowing the numbers, there is no way to formulate effective public policies, he considers.
Alex Vargem granted the following interview in a cafe in Shopping Light, in downtown São Paulo. During the conversation, it was possible to observe the passage of many immigrants – including Haitians and Africans – dealing with bureaucratic issues in the posts of the Federal Police and the Federal Revenue housed in the building, where there are also exchange offices and money transfer agencies for sending money abroad. In the interview, he laments the existence of situations such as the so-called Connector of Guarulhos International Airport (“legal limbo”, he defines) and the lack of contact between the organizations of recent African immigration and the Movimento Negro Brasileiro (black Brazilian movement).
Revista Samuel: You say that the cases of xenophobia and attacks on Africans and Haitians, like what happened in São Paulo in August, are not isolated, contrary to what some voices argue. Are these situations that are repeated?
Alex André Vargem: Historically one always started from the assumption that the Brazilian is welcoming and treats well those coming from outside. However, in my eleven years of work with research and denunciation of human rights violations, I notice a particularity of black migration, of Africans and Haitians, that has to do with racism in Brazil. The racial issue bothers a portion of society and those in public power. The violence is either direct or indirect: we have from the racist graffiti in universities, to the fire at the lodging of African students at UnB, to the arrest of nearly 600 Africans and Haitians three blocks from the city hall of São Paulo, on a weekday afternoon.
There are even cases of death, such as Zulmira and Toni, and of aggression as the recent attack on Haitians also in São Paulo. Late last year, during the Marcha do Migrante (March of the Migrants), started out in Praça da República (República Square) and went to Sé, a man started shouting, “go back to your homes, what are you doing here?” Whoever is that environment know that they aren’t isolated actions: they are of violence that repeats itself at any moment. That violence that maybe the person doesn’t manifest against bodies of black Brazilians will manifest against African and Haitians bodies.
RS: Do you think that society doesn’t acknowledge these facts or prefer not to take notice?
AV: There are the two sides. A few days ago I was in a debate and at the end a lady approached me and said, ‘My son, you just talk about negative things!’. Well, I’d like to talk about other issues, but precisely because much of the population doesn’t acknowledge these facts they have to be disclosed. Many of these immigrants have never suffered racism in their countries of origin and are starting to deal with this for the first time in their lives here. A friend from Guinea-Bissau told me that she was restricted in a bank where she had an account because, according to the security, “you don’t have a Brazilian face.” It’s shocking, because the ethnic issues in countries of origin are different, and here they learn about Brazilian racism. I believe there is still resistance to making a self-criticism, and so the society clings to that image that we welcome all well.
RS: Do you think this issue is very hidden or is even denied in order that they don’t compromise the idea of the welcoming Brazilian, that is particularly strong in São Paulo?
AV: Exactly. Even from a legal point of view: the Estatuto do Estrangeiro (Statute of the Foreigner) still in force, is a law from 1980, the era of the military dictatorship. The first time that society and the government tried to think of enhancing public policies for migrants was in 2014, in Comigrar (National Conference on Migration and Refugee). 2014! In other words, we are far behind.
The welcoming myth always gets in the way: for what do we create public policies for those who are in situations of vulnerability if we are ‘good welcomers’? In São Paulo, we have sent migrants to hostels for the homeless population, which is absurd. The person does not speak Portuguese and the staff doesn’t speak other languages. This is another demand, another particularity. There are conflicts and prejudices of the homeless against Africans and Haitians, because there is a repertoire of ideas that are reproduced regardless of social class.
RS: In 2011, the National Secretary of Justice, Paulo Abrão, disputed criticism that you had done on the refuge policy in Brazil. He said in an Estadão report, Brazil has infinitely smaller expulsion and repatriation numbers than those of European countries, and 99% of expulsions are related to trafficking. Are these allegations well founded?
AV: In my estimation, he mixed up a little the issue of refugee with migrants. We have reports that, at the borders and airports, it is the public official himself in the place that determines who receives refuge or not. His job is not this, but to send the case to Brasília, where the issue will be evaluated. Thus, certain authorities violate international treaties to which Brazil is a signatory. Who can’t get refugee status ends up looking for another way to regulate. That is, there is irregular migration produced by the state itself.
Amnesty 2009 (to foreigners unlawfully in the country, according to Law 11.961) was very beautiful in the discourse, and many friends thought that Brazil was setting an example for the world. I said: let’s get out of the text and see what happens on the ground. Were only six months to refer to the request, from July to December; there was little publicity in the press; the rates were expensive – as well as the Federal Police, the consulates of the countries also charged. There were 40,000 amnestied in the first instance, as we have an estimate of 150,000 to 600,000 undocumented foreigners in Brazil. Of Africans, there were less than three thousand, which is not close to a number that we don’t know, but we believe it is much higher than what the government estimated.
The second phase was to prove that they were working. We request the data from the government and to this day don’t know exactly how many were amnestied in total. For me, the amnesty didn’t work. When speaking of the Brazilian migration policy, between discourse and practice there is an abyss.
RS: And is the allegation regarding traffickers justified?
AV: I believe there is an institutionalized prejudice of the agents and of government power. There are dozens of arrests of nationalities involved with trafficking in the penitentiary of Itai (interior of São Paulo state): Spanish, French, German … But in the Brazilian sociological imagination, generally the category “African” slips into “Nigerian” and automatically “dealer”. This is what justifies the episode of the March 2012 arrests in downtown São Paulo: in the eyes of the government, it’s institutionalized that African is dealer.
The treatment is different with respect to other nationalities. But of course there is a whole range of situations, and those who are in an undocumented situation without possibility of getting a formal job, can fall into crime networks and be co-opted.
RS: You also mention the so-called connector from Guarulhos International Airport (São Paulo) as an area where many breaches occur. Why?
AV: Legally, that doesn’t even exist. In Europe there are legal mechanisms to regulate prisons or quarantines for migrants. But here, when going through Immigration, one can claim lack of documents and people stay there waiting for some form of regulation – or deportation. There are cases of people who had all the regular documentation and were detained. Others come to remain weeks or months there. It is a legal limbo in which one of the few authorities that come in is the Public Defender.
Last year, about 300 people were in the connector. And not only there. There was one case in Porto de Paranaguá (PR) in 2011, with nine Nigerians who came on a ship. Many boarding and traveling clandestinely in the basements thinking that the destination is Europe, and only on arrival do they discover that they stop in Brazil. One delegate said in an interview that he didn’t allow the entry of Nigerians because they could be “terrorists, threats to public safety, national security and public health”! What he should do is welcome and formalize the occurrence and wait for Brasília to respond to a refugee claim. It is not up to him to decide who enters or not. The Nigerians were only able to stay in the country because there were repercussions in the media. If this happens in large ports and airports, imagine what is happening in more distant regions. Certainly there are many other cases that we don’t even know. Many Haitians, for example, even with a humanitarian visa, were barred in Brazil. That is, they didn’t even have the right to seek refuge.
RS: On the other hand, there is a migration of Europeans fleeing the economic crisis in their countries. In this case, their entrance here is not questioned, is it?
AV: Yeah – and many more Latin Americans arrive also, but the major concern is with black migration. These African and Haitians boys are mostly young, in their 20s or 30s, and many have higher education in their home country. In the Congolese community, for example, one of the boys studied administration, speaks English, French and local languages, but what he got here was an ‘odd job’ of unloading trucks in early morning hours, and still earning less than the Brazilians.
Basically, we are talking about a number of people as derisory…there are just over 1 million documented migrants in a country of 200 million people. In the United States, perhaps 10% of the population.
RS: What would have to change so that the action of these agents at the tip of the system would be different?
AV: What is being discussed with the new Immigration Act [under discussion in Congress] is the possibility of creating the so-called National Migration Authority, but its composition still seem vague to me. Even though this is a civil body, the Federal Police will hardly give up its monopoly on the borders. This dichotomy is always present in Brazil: we have great laws such as that of the refugee, but what’s the point if it is not followed? Less than 1% of applicants manage to get a change of a negative decision in the first instance. One thing is to be a refugee like Cesare Battisti, another is the overwhelming anonymous majority coming on the bottom of a ship. Anyway, all the effects of new laws, regulations or creation of organs need to be evaluated in the medium and long term.
In São Paulo, we have a Coordination of Policies for Migrants for at City Hall, but questionable actions on the streets still occur. There are several Senegalese craftsmen in Praça da República (República Square) who complain that the supervision and the (police) stops are more with them than with others, whether Brazilian or other nationalities. Even with these new instances, in practice things haven’t changed much.
RS: Locating the number of undocumented aliens between 150,000 and 600,000 is a wide range. When there is no reliable data, how do you create effective public policies?
AV: There are several instances that rack the brain. The work visas, for example, are usually granted by CNIg (National Immigration Council), of the Ministry of Labor and Employment. Already Conare (National Committee for Refugees) is in the Ministry of Justice, which also has other departments to deal with these issues. We need to have a central agency with official figures so that public policies can be worked on.
RS: You say that Movimentos Negros (black social movements) in Brazil don’t talk to Africans. Why does this happen?
AV: It is a central issue. The principle instrument to create public policies in Brazil is national conferences. In the last Racial Equality [III National Conference on Promoting Racial Equality – CONAPIR, 2013] a single line aimed at the African or Haitian diaspora didn’t come out. I believe that from the point of view of the old leaders of the Movimento Negro, the redemption that is done is always historic, a descendant of slaves, which is reflected in the implementation of Law 10.639, on the teaching of African history in schools. But there is a distancing of the living Africa, which is present here.
Part of the assumption is that there is a denial, an attempt of not wanting to see this reality as a problem itself. It’s that discourse: ‘we have so many problems, now more with Africans and Haitians…’ I have heard comments that ‘the black foreigner is not our problem’. Many people who were leaders of the black movement and today are in central positions in the government reproduce the same practice and the same social vision. On the other hand, the younger ones already have a certain approximation, perhaps more caused by shock, as in the killing of Zulmira. Today there is a plethora of actors and associations. The Congolese, for example, have about four – they are still simple groups without legal recognition.
To enhance the rights of these immigrants, it would essential that the Movimento Negro learn, know and be together. There are some minor actions, often linked to cultural issues, music, religion and food. But in the political struggle there is no programmatic agenda.
Source: Opera Mundi