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The roots of resistance

Distance from the historical pattern of white, European immigrants and a limited job market are some of the reasons for hostility towards current migratory flows



Sellers of herbs and spices typical of Bolivia in an open market on Coimbra Street, in São Paulo

Sellers of herbs and spices typical of Bolivia in an open market on Coimbra Street, in São Paulo

“Go back to Cuba!” Sociologist Roberta Peres was startled by the shout of a passenger in a gray car passing in front of Missão Paz, a religious institution that serves migrants, immigrants and refugees shortly after their arrival in São Paulo. The Haitian she was interviewing — an engineering student who had interrupted her degree because her university was destroyed by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti — did not understand the situation, as they were talking in English. It was early 2014, the height of the wave of Haitians arriving in the state capital. Hostility grew in the following months. On Saturday, August 1, 2015, six Haitians were shot with a BB gun on Glicério Street and on the steps of the Our Lady of Peace church, where Missão Paz is located.

“In several Brazilian cities Haitians are still oppressed by locals,” says Rosana Baeninger, also a sociologist and colleague of Peres at the Population Studies Center (NEPO) at the University of Campinas (Unicamp). The two participated in a recently concluded study on the status and plans of 250 Haitians who live in Manaus, Porto Velho, the city of São Paulo, three cities in upstate São Paulo (Campinas, Jundiaí and Santa Fé do Sul), and Curitiba, Camboriú, Porto Alegre and Encantado in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Those interviewed were mostly men aged 24 to 29 who intended to send for their families, but were not planning to stay in Brazil. “To the Haitians,” said Peres, “Brazil is no longer a target country but rather an intermediary —  although long — step on the way to the United States, where most said they would like to go.”

The survey reinforced two previous findings by the NEPO team. The first is lack of geographical concentration: cities in upstate São Paulo, such as Piracicaba and Limeira, in addition to cities like Campinas, Jundiaí and Santa Fé do Sul — due to international investments in agriculture or industry — are the destinations of more immigrants and are finding themselves in situations previously common only in state capitals like São Paulo, which until the early 2000s was the almost exclusive destination of foreigners. “Surplus population follows international capital allocations, although the city of São Paulo continues to be a reference in the minds of immigrants,” says Baeninger.

African immigrants selling goods on the streets

African immigrants selling goods on the streets

The second conclusion is that the immigration wave of the last 10 years — consisting of Bolivians, Peruvians and other Latin Americans, plus Haitians, Senegalese and Congolese beginning in 2010 — runs contrary to tacit historical assumptions. “Since the late 19th century, people have come to believe that, for an immigrant to be accepted, he had to be white and European, and current immigrants are indigenous peoples who speak Spanish, such as Bolivians, or blacks who speak French or Creole, like the Haitians,” says Baeninger, who has been working in this field for 30 years. According to her, the distance from the historical white European standard, the absence of an explicit need for foreign labor and the lack of local, state and federal public policies to promote the social interaction of the 21st-century immigrants, is generating what she calls “distancing in relation to the other” and hostile reactions.

The Japanese who arrived in the early part of the 20th century, says Baeninger, although tolerated due to the need for labor on the coffee plantations — then the foundation of the Brazilian economy — were treated with hostility and subject to discrimination, as shown in the film Gaijin – Os caminhos da liberdade (Gaijin – The paths to freedom) (1980). Asians were seen as an inferior race like blacks and Indians that would adversely affect the whitening of the population so desired by the Brazilian government and promoted by European immigrants.

With its eugenic character, the plan to whiten the Brazilian population is believed to have been established by Getúlio Vargas during the Estado Novo (1930-1945). According to a study by historian Fábio Koifman, of the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ), published in the book Imigrante ideal: o Ministério da Justiça e a entrada de estrangeiros no Brasil (1941-1945)  (The Ideal Immigrant: the Ministry of Justice and the entry of foreigners in Brazil (1941-1945)) (Civilização Brasileira, 2012), the plan established which immigrants were desirable — white, catholic and apolitical, preferably Portuguese with low levels of education, without “corrupting ideas” like the intellectual groups from Germany, France and Austria, among other countries.  The undesirables were black, Japanese, elderly or disabled. In 1930, during his presidential campaign, Vargas stated that immigration would also have to be considered from an ethnic as well as economic viewpoint. After his election, he approved several laws that established quotas on immigration, principally restricting the immigration of Asians. “Literate segments of Brazilian society and many in the government, including Vargas, believed that the problem of Brazilian development was related to the poor ethnic background of the people. They thought that by attracting ‘good’ immigrants, or in other words whites who would integrate with the non-white population would enable Brazil to become a more developed society in 50 years,” said Koifman in a Pesquisa FAPESP interview published in 2012 (see Issue nº 201).

Customers of Bolivian shops on street in the Brás neighborhood of São Paulo

Customers of Bolivian shops on street in the Brás neighborhood of São Paulo

Both in Brazil and in Europe, the media treat the arrival of immigrants “as a threat, as if the country had been invaded by an unemployed horde, troublemakers who come here to pressure the overwrought social protection system and the labor market,” wrote Antônio Tadeu Ribeiro de Oliveira, a researcher at the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), in an article published in January, 2015 in the Revista Interdisciplinar da Mobilidade Humana (Interdisciplinary Journal of Human Mobility). According to Oliveira, the dimension of this phenomenon, despite the intense visibility, “is much smaller than the arrival of illegal white immigrants through airports, ports and other border areas.”

Those who arrive are often disappointed. According to Father Paolo Parise, one of the Missão Paz directors, the coyotes — the name given to smugglers who charge immigrants to help them traverse country borders — promise the Haitians that they will easily find jobs paying $1,500 a month. “Haitians say they never imagined that Brazil was so racist,” he says. Supported by the Scalabrinian Congregation and donations, Missão Paz has offered housing, food, medical, psychological and social care and documentation services for immigrants, refugees and migrants since 1978. Eleven thousand of the 60,000 Haitians who have arrived in Brazil since 2010 have passed through the organization. At the beginning of September, 2015, Father Parise greeted the recent Syrian arrivals with his hand on his chest, without extending his hand or touching them, as he normally did with the Latin Americans he met while walking, indicating the care needed when dealing with people from different countries and cultures.

Recent arrivals from Syria are assisted by the Solidarity Oasis, an organization supported by the Syrian community already established in São Paulo

Recent arrivals from Syria are assisted by the Solidarity Oasis, an organization supported by the Syrian community already established in São Paulo

In 2015, the team from Missão Paz was able to find jobs for more than 1,180 immigrants. Through September of 2014, they had found jobs for 1,700, which makes Father Parise predict that 2015 could end up with one third fewer immigrants hired. The Unicamp survey also indicated that the best times seem to have passed. After a period of relatively easy-to-find temporary work in construction before the 2014 World Cup, many now prefer to go to the states of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul where they believe they will find better jobs.

“Public agencies are in favor of immigration and taking responsibility for developing public policies,” observes Camila Baraldi, adjunct coordinator of the Migrant Policy Coordination Department (CPMig) of the São Paulo Municipal Secretary of Human Rights and Citizenship. One of its first actions, shortly after being established in 2013, was to promote the simplification of the bureaucracy faced by immigrants in opening bank accounts as a way to reduce their risk of being mugged since they tend to carry all of their money on their person.  CPMig also facilitates the hiring of these immigrants by companies.  Most of the time CPMig teams focused on Haitians, who arrived in large numbers in 2014, sometimes as many as one bus-load per day. The flow is slower now, but two or three buses still arrive every week from Acre, the first stop in Brazil. Most stay in the city of São Paulo, at least in the beginning. Now there has been an increase in Syrians arriving: in August 2015 city teams assisted 25.

For those who arrive with no place to go, the department offers temporary housing and help with documents and finding a job, in addition to providing contacts for teams in other public agencies to ensure access to health and educational services and social assistance. “They are often denied these rights, due to the lack of knowledge on the part of the government employee assisting them,” says Baraldi. At the moment, one of the priorities is to form an Interdepartmental Committee on Municipal Policy for Immigrants, established in August 2015, which will consist of 13 representatives from the government and 13 from the general public, with the task of developing a public policy proposal for the immigrant population currently living in the city of São Paulo.

016-023_Capa_Migrações_236Legal support for immigrants is still precarious. The Refugee Act (1997) ensures them of some rights, such as registration as a foreigner in Brazil, but broader actions are made difficult by the restrictive nature of the Foreigner Act, in force since the 1980s. In July 2015, the Senate approved a bill that would establish a new Migration Act, revoking the prior statute and reducing the requirements for granting visas and authorization for residence. The bill is currently being considered by the House of Representatives.

In the last four years, the number of refugees in Brazil has doubled, reaching 8,530 by September 2015 according to the National Committee on Refugees of the Ministry of Justice. Syrians, who are arriving in increasing numbers, represent 24.5% of the total number of refugees of 81 nationalities who live in Brazil, followed by Colombians, Angolans, Congolese and Lebanese. There are also 12,666 requests for refugee status being assessed.

In Brazil there are no swarms of refugees like those arriving in Central Europe in recent months, principally from Syria, destroyed by war. In 2015, Germany received about 200,000 immigrants, which could compensate for the decrease in population due to the fall in the birth rate, but in general immigrants are unwelcome — and not only in Europe. According to a study from the French institute Ipsos, half of the inhabitants interviewed in 24 nations, including Brazil, said that there were too many immigrants in their countries; 46% believed that the foreigners made it more difficult for citizens to find jobs and only 21% of the 17,533 people interviewed thought that the impact of immigrants on their country was positive. In Brazil, 36% of those surveyed said that immigrants increased competition for jobs, a percentage much lower than the 85% in Turkey, 68% in Russia and 56% in Argentina with the same opinion.

Bolivian woman in festive clothes attending a poetry festival at the Sunday market on Kantuta square, in the Canindé neighborhood

Bolivian woman in festive clothes attending a poetry festival at the Sunday market on Kantuta square, in the Canindé neighborhood

The contrary reactions exhibited so far in Brazilian cities are also far from the conflicts taking place in Europe, “but express the difficulty the receiving society is having in accepting these groups of immigrants,” stresses Baeninger. In 2012 and 2013, graffiti on the doors of shops in Piracicaba was hostile to Koreans, many of whom had moved to the city when the South Korean auto manufacturer Hyundai began building its factory there in 2010. In early August 2015, the words “Back to Haiti” were painted on the wall of the cemetery in Nova Odessa, a city near Campinas. Through July 2015, the Nova Odessa Baptist Church had helped about 80 Haitians find jobs and learn Portuguese. In 2014, 13 Haitians denounced beatings they had suffered at the companies in which they worked in Curitiba. An estimated 2,500 Haitians work in that city, many in construction.

Despite the difficulties, the immigrants are making a place for themselves. There are already restaurants, cafés, clothing stores and Internet cafés with Haitian employees or owners in the Glicério region, near the Missão Paz, in São Paulo. Coimbra Street, in the Brás neighborhood, is the heart of São Paulo’s Bolivian community, with an estimated 300,000 immigrants, of which only 90,000 are legal. Open-air markets on Saturday and Sunday on Coimbra Street bring together about 6,000 Bolivians and visitors who can purchase potatoes that look like carrots, white, black or red-flecked stones, and many types of corn and pepper and other spices, among restaurants serving salchipara, silpancho, sajta, cordan soup and other traditional dishes. The sellers are attentive, but reluctant, probably due to their undocumented status. They talk enthusiastically about the many kinds of corn, less about the cities from which they came — most likely La Paz or Cochabamba — and then fall silent. The market was legalized by the city in November 2014, a move which allowed improvements in its organization and safety, after having operated for 11 years without a permit.

Less then 3 kilometers away is a city maternity hospital whose teams, since 2005, have specialized in assisting Bolivian women who, generally, do not speak Portuguese. In an article published in 2006 in the journal Estudos Avançados (Advanced Studies), the anthropologist Sidney Silva, of the Federal University of Amazonas, wrote that Bolivian immigration became more visible in São Paulo beginning in the 1980s, but actually began in the 1950s with students who arrived through a Brazilian-Bolivian cultural exchange program. “After completing their studies, many of them chose to stay due to the many offers of employment at the time in the São Paulo labor market,” said Silva. After, the flow of Latin American immigrants — Bolivians, Peruvians and Paraguayans, Uruguayans and Chileans — continued to grow. They work mostly in the apparel industry and retail.

In order to understand the roots of immigration, the sociologist Patrícia Freitas, currently a researcher at the Center for Metropolitan Studies (CEM), one of the 17 Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDCs) financed by FAPESP, interviewed 17 Bolivians in São Paulo and another 33, over an eight-month period in 2012 and 2013, in cities and rural municipalities in Bolivia, as part of her doctorate under Rosana Baeninger. “In general, the Bolivians who immigrated have been driven out of the countryside since the 1980s and 1990s and lived in extremely precarious situations in cities in Bolivia,” Freitas concluded, after following the personal trajectories of those interviewed.

“The working conditions there are worse than here, where they can earn more. There are cases of exploitation, yes, but many do well,” she says. According to her, employers use ads to attract those interested in immigrating and pay their travel expenses to São Paulo or Buenos Aires, another common destination, to work in the garment industry, agreeing to a debt that is not always paid because the immigrants find better jobs after arriving. The 50 individuals interviewed had worked in 180 garment factories in Bolivian cities and São Paulo.

“This is an opportunity to recognize that we are a part of Latin America,” says Camila Baraldi, of CPMig. In her doctorate, concluded in 2014 at USP, she argued that South American citizenship is a work in progress and “could become a citizenship founded on the paradigm of mobility.” Father Parise suggests: “We need to understand and teach the historical reasons behind migratory flows.” “Today’s world,” he says, “is made up of emigration and refuge, which are no longer circumstantial, but rather have become structural.” International migration is one of the foundations on which societies and states form, expand and reproduce, reiterates Thomas Nail, professor at the University of Denver, in a recent book entitled The figure of the migrant (Stanford University Press). “The social conditions of migration,” he observes, “are always a mixture of territorial, political, legal and economic expulsion.  The four types operate at the same time, to different degrees.” The academic world has a role to fulfill in this field, offering opportunities for students and researchers to continue their careers, alerted an editorial in Nature on September 10, 2015. If not, argues the journal, we could lose an entire generation of talents from the Middle East and other regions of the world.

1. Observatory of migrations in São Paulo: internal and international migrations in contemporary State of São Paulo (nº 2014/04850-1); Grant Mechanism: Thematic Project; Principal Investigator: Rosana Aparecida Baeninger (NEPO/Unicamp); Investment: R$555,279.96.
2. The governance of international migrations and its impacts on the social experience of migrants: a comparative study of national and local contexts in São Paulo, Brazil, and Buenos Aires, Argentina (nº 2014/11649-0); Grant Mechanism: Post-doctorate research grant; Principal Investigator: Eduardo Cesar Leão Marques (USP); Grant Recipient: Patrícia Tavares de Freitas; Investment: R$169,557.84.

Scientific articles
BAENINGER, R. Rotatividade migratória: um novo olhar para as migrações internas no Brasil. Revista Interdisciplinar da Mobilidade Humana. V. 20, No. 39, p. 77-100. 2012.
FREITAS, P. T. de. Família e inserção laboral de jovens migrantes na indústria de confecção. Revista Interdisciplinar da Mobilidade Humana. V. 22, p. 231-46. 2014.
Keep a welcome. Nature, V. 525, p. 157. September 10, 2015.
OLIVEIRA, A.T.R. de. Os invasores: As ameaças que representam as migrações subsaariana na espanha haitiana no Brasil. Revista Interdisciplinar da Mobilidade Humana. V. 23, No. 44, p. 135-55. Jan./Jun. 2015.
SILVA, S.A. Bolivianos em São Paulo: entre o sonho e a realidade. Estudos Avançados. V. 20, No. 57, p. 157-70. 2006.

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