Haitian Refugees Find Little Comfort in Brazil: The Ticker

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By Mayara Vilas Boas

It has been two years since a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated large swaths of Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. One consequence has been an exodus of people to points north and south. A rising number are heading to Brazil, whose booming economy makes it an appealing draw for Haitians seeking to escape.

Too often, though, rather than getting a fresh start, what Haitians encounter is nothing short of cruel and inhumane. This week, Brazil's TV Globo network did a long report on the Haitian migration. The conclusion: the conditions that many Haitians find themselves in are as bad, and perhaps worse, than in their own country.

According to the Brazilian Department of Justice, some 4,000 Haitians entered the country last year. The immigrants endure a tortuous journey that takes them first to the adjoining Dominican Republic. From there, they travel to Panama, then to Ecuador and finally to Peru or Bolivia before crossing the Brazilian border. They settle in smaller cities in the western Amazon and wait there for Brazilian authorities to decide their fate. The goal is to get a work visa.

The cost of the trip is estimated at $4,000 a person, a fortune for the 80 percent of the Haitian population that lives on less than $2 a day. The only way most Haitians can raise that much is to sell everything they have. They then pay a smuggler, known as a coyote, to arrange the dangerous and arduous journey. It's not uncommon to hear reports of violence, abuse and rape.

To try to stem the influx, the Brazilian government now requires that Haitians receive a work visa from its embassy in Port-au-Prince before trying to enter. Brazil has decided to issue just 100 visas a month. Such a visa, valid for five years, also allows a Haitian citizen to bring his or her family along.

The government has said it will give work visas to the 4,000 Haitians already in Brazil, and plans to enforce new measures to stop those trying to enter illegally. As for those Haitians now in Brazil, many end up in substandard housing without proper food, hygiene or medical care.

On Jan. 19, the Health Department said it will spend R$1.32 million ($740,000) a year to provide Haitians with adequate public-health services. That's a step forward. Brazil can do more to alleviate Haiti's humanitarian crisis, but it shouldn't be the only country to do so. Peru, Bolivia and other Central and South American countries should share responsibility in helping Haitians resettle.

(Mayara Vilas Boas is on the staff of Bloomberg View.)




-0- Jan/24/2012 15:07 GMT