HRW: Brazilian hospitals ‘overburdened’ by flood of Venezuelan refugees

Demonstrators take cover from tear gas fired by Bolivarian National Guard soldiers during an anti-government protest in Caracas, Venezuela, April 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Human Rights Watch officials say there is an unprecedented number of sick and hungry Venezuelans immigrating to a northern state of Brazil, where authorities say the health-care system is ill-equipped to help them.

More than 12,000 Venezuelans have entered and stayed in Brazil since 2014, according to official sources cited by HRW. The number of Venezuelans moving to Brazil has increased more than fivefold from 2014, reaching 7,150 during the first 11 months of last year.

Organization officials say many of the migrants enter into the Brazilian state of Roraima. Most say they left Venezuela either because they could not buy adequate food or medicine for their families, or because of crime, HRW said.

“Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have fled a humanitarian crisis that their government denies exists and is not addressing adequately,” according to a statement earlier this week. “The unprecedented influx of Venezuelans is straining Roraima’s already overburdened public health care system and clogging Brazil’s system for processing asylum applications.”

Brazilian health-care providers told HRW that hospital capacity was strained even before the Venezuelan arrivals. Now, with migrants flooding across the border – and often sicker than Brazilians, having failed to receive treatment at home – health-care providers say they are not equipped to provide adequate care.

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“They arrive very malnourished, with several illnesses, some of them as a result of malnutrition, respiratory and skin diseases, infectious diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis, syphilis,” Clara, a missionary with a local humanitarian NGO, said in a video by HRW. “We are now having an outbreak of chicken pox. Many are living on the street or in shelters.”

HRW said most of the Venezuelans interviewed had requested asylum, but that more than 4,000 migrants in Roraima have been stuck for months on a waiting list for appointments to file asylum requests. Brazilian officials have said that many Venezuelans don’t fulfill the requirements for refugee status, which they are only granted if they can prove that they have suffered some kind of persecution or violation of human rights in their home country.

To circumvent this obstacle, the Brazilian government recently decided to grant temporary residence to Venezuelans and migrants from other bordering countries. The law is intended to allow Venezuelans who have requested asylum to stay in Brazil, obtain work permits and enroll their children in school.

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But as the population of migrants swells, some local police have blamed the influx of Venezuelans for a spike in thefts, robberies and even homicides. In the rural town of Pacaraima, the mayor has even declared a state of emergency, NPR reported.

But several experts have cautioned local officials against rushing to any conclusion about the rising crime rate. Gustavo da Frota Simões, a professor of International Relations at the Federal University of Roraima, told Global Voices that drawing inaccurate correlations between the migrants and alarming crime statistics could create a sensation that Venezuelans are “invading” Brazil.

“The way local newspapers cover the Venezuelan migration reveals a lack of understanding of the issue and the outlines of xenophobia,” Simões said to Global Voices. “The immigrant, or ‘the Venezuelan,’ is always ‘the author of the crime’ — the one who causes increase in prostitution, drug abuse, and other woes.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com