The humanitarian crisis that gained visibility with the mass arrival of immigrants to Europe, many of them refugees primarily from the Middle East and Northern Africa, has again focused the spotlight on the phenomenon of large-scale migration. Its impact has reverberated in other countries, including Brazil, which saw the number of refugees entering the country double in the past four years. Syrians, for example, now represent 24.5% of the 8,530 refugees in Brazil. Despite their small number (close to the contingent that arrived in Europe), these immigrants often trigger a certain amount of alienation and become targets for discriminatory actions in Brazil.
This topic is the subject of research studies such as the ones currently underway at the Population Studies Center of the University of Campinas (NEPO-Unicamp) and the Center for Metropolitan Studies at the University of São Paulo (CEM-USP), and is featured as this month’s cover story. Since the 2000s, large metropolitan areas have ceased to be the nearly exclusive destination for immigrants: in their pursuit of employment, these groups now follow the investments in agriculture or industry to smaller cities in Brazil’s interior. Researchers also suggest that the migratory wave of the past 10 years is at odds with unspoken historical assumptions that dictate the notion that the “ideal” foreigners for Brazil are white, European Catholics. This discriminatory and restrictive view has now come to serve as a basis for Brazilian government actions – reminiscent of the Estado Novo’s plan to “whiten” the Brazilian population (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 201). The current wave consists mainly of Latin Americans (Bolivians, Haitians and Colombians) in addition to Africans such as those from Senegal and the Congo. Because they do not fall into this mold, there will likely be additional alienation. This factor, combined with others such as competition for employment and lack of public policies designed to aid the integration of immigrants into Brazilian society, have likely contributed to these hostile reactions. The state of São Paulo, whose development (including scientific and technological) has benefited so greatly from immigration, is in a strong position to offer a more constructive response.
Another story of alienation and violence refers to the victims of the discriminatory policy in effect up to 1986 against those with Hansen’s disease in Brazil. The practice of compulsory internment in colony hospitals was preceded by a policy of burning the patients’ homes and all their belongings. It is estimated that 40,000 people have been separated from their families as a result of these isolationist strategies, and 25,000 children have been placed in special orphanages. In 1924, before there was effective treatment, Brazil implemented the practice of compulsory internment, which gained momentum in the 1940s: by 1943, the 41 leper colonies scattered throughout Brazil held 17,000 people. During the same decade, Brazil began to treat those patients with sulfone, which necessitated only periodic hospital visits. Despite this, and even after signing a 1952 international accord that put an end to compulsory internments, the practice continued in Brazil for another 30 years, separating families and marginalizing close relatives. A project carried out since 2011 by a team from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), associated with the non-governmental organization Movement for the Reintegration of Hansen’s Disease Patients (MORHAN), is using historical research studies and DNA tests in an attempt to reunite families of Hansen victims who never knew each other or had been separated.
In both cases, overcoming a lack of knowledge shows that alienation and the violence associated with it are harmful to society.