A 25-year-old student is stopped on the way home. He barely has time to turn off his motorcycle when he is dragged by two unknown men to a secluded area. They don’t need to cover their faces, they know he is too frightened to look at them. With a gun pointed at his head, he is at their mercy. As Nurul Islam is held at gunpoint in his hometown of Dhaka, Bangladesh, one word goes through his mind: “Enough!”. He could not take it anymore. In an unequal country experiencing political unrest, the student leader had become a target of intimidation. In his mind, the confirmation of all the death threats he received was unfolding.
Luckily, he was wrong. “They settled for taking my bike, but not before making more threats – a lot of them. Then I saw how serious things have become.” That night, a family meeting was held. The decision was unanimous: his only option, now, was to flee.
A cry for help
There is a clear relationship between conflict and migration, but there are two reasons that make people abandon everything: professional growth and personal security. Whereas economic migrants search for better economic prospects for themselves and their families, refugees hope to save their lives or preserve their freedom, due to climate change or ideological persecution. When other countries deny them acceptance, these people may be condemned to life in the margins of society, or worse, extradition and death.
Nurul’s country is a staggering example of what drives citizens away. According to the World Bank, 31 per cent of the population of Bangladesh lies below the poverty line – Unicef states that 84 per cent live on less than $2 a day. Last year, a rivalry between the two main political parties increased significantly, with fires, lynchings and disappearances of ordinary people becoming routine. Conflict between the ruling Awami League and opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party compromise the country’s daily life and creates a scary number of victims – including 300 reported deaths. Simultaneously, unfriendly relations with neighbouring Myanmar also sets a dark cloud for those close to the border.
After Germany and Norway denied him political asylum, Nurul discovered a coyote, an agent that profits from the illegal trafficking of people. In dire need of a new home and with nothing left to lose, he counted on his family to gather $10,000. He gambled on a one-way trip to the most improbable destination: Brazil – three continents and two oceans away. “I couldn’t go anywhere else. In the Middle East, you can be shot without a visa. In Europe, Bengalis aren’t easily welcomed” he remembers with an unsteady tone. With nowhere to go and with plenty of reasons to leave, his solution was to run to the other side of the world. Literally.
It was a long, tortuous route. By plane, he passed through Peru, then Bolivia, bribing authorities along the way. After getting his passport stamped in the airport of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, an overnight bus ride took him to the edge of Brazilian Amazon. The rest of his money was taken before he was passed on to another coyote, who guided him in his long walk through the jungle. Tired and underfed, Nurul had his complaints answered through beatings throughout the journey. Still, he was lucky. Freed upon arrival, he found the growing Bengali community and was given orientations on how to legalise his situation.
He is by no means an exception. Ricardo Felix is a lawyer for Caritas, a human rights NGO present in several Brazilian cities. He is not surprised by the story. “Coercion is common, and sometimes even ordinary people carry out persecution”, he explains. Bengalis with whom he keeps contact say they see Brazil as a peaceful country, with a history of welcoming foreigners, but also as a land of financial opportunities. He points out that, overexposed due to economic development and major events, “the country now has to deal with these consequences”. The scariest? Modern-day slavery.
Subjugation and restraint
Chains have been abandoned, but there are plenty of similarities between the old-time slavery and current forms of forced labour. Physical punishments, threats, lack of sanitation and proper nourishment are still present in many countries. Rural and urban areas alike house plantations, sweatshops and brothels that force workers into long hours in unsafe conditions, normally through debt that cannot be covered by unfair (or non-existent) wages. Frighteningly, modern slavery is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world, says Rani Hong, Special Advisor to UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking. A former child-slave herself, she stresses the urgent need to take action: “It generates profits of more than 150 billion dollars per year – business is booming”.
That is why forging international partnerships is important. Brazilian Federal Police — responsible for borders — explain that enticement is usually carried out in close circles, meaning that recruited workers know their recruiters personally. In the case of cross-border trafficking, recruitment of foreigners is done mostly by their countrymen, not Brazilian nationals. This means police act towards remedying the consequence, not punishing and preventing those at the beginning of the chain.
Authorities have identified two main routes of illegal entrance in the country. Coyotes use the borders of Bolivia and Paraguay to allow people in illegally. Most of the latter group end up in factories in the state of Paraná. Less fortunate immigrants finish in coalmines or clandestine sweatshops of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. This is not exclusive to foreigners: they face the same shameful conditions as the locals. It’s a matter of regional disparities, rather than xenophobic profiling.
The scarce population in inaccessible regions means long waits before liberation. That is why landing points make such a difference in relation to lifetime opportunities for illegal immigrants. Traffickers and coyotes are acquainted not only with the least monitored borders, but also the regions where government agencies fail to reach. Data is inconsistent, however, a report prepared by the Land Pastoral Commission accounted for the freedom of 2,208 people – about 100 of them foreigners, 56 per cent of them were found in urban areas. This is the first time the number surpassed those of isolated regions. The coordinator for the NGO’s anti-slavery programme, Xavier Plassat, explains this is due to strengthening of surveillance in critical, overlooked areas, such as construction.
Strategic partnerships defy slaveholders
Attributions are being divided between different segments of society, with the special engagement of the Catholic Church towards social integration: almost recalling that of the Jesuits with Guarani Indians, centuries ago. While the Federal Police works with Interpol against traffickers, they direct immigrants towards the Ministry of Labour to sort documentation and thus reduce the gap between native and alien residents –in rights and obligations. Parishes and NGOs provide temporary housing and subsistence, as well as Portuguese lessons, job referrals and protection for worship of religion. A beautiful example occurred last December, when Italian descendants of Caxias do Sul lent church facilities to Senegalese Mourides so they could celebrate Grand Magal de Touba. In a multicultural peak, Islamic rituals were replaced by conversations in Portuguese, French, Wolof and Arabic. So where does the private sector stand?
Major companies are expected to monitor outsourced suppliers, and have added social accountability to the pre-existing environmental reports. Companies are also absorbing as much as possible of the new-found labour – seen as committed, hard-working and, consequently, profitable. “They go to work happy, singing. I have heard entrepreneurs say that production increased from 15 per cent to 35 per cent after the hiring of Haitians”, advertises Ana Paula Caffeu, social worker and employment mediator in Nossa Senhora da Paz church, São Paulo’s main hiring spot.
Immigrants from Bangladesh, Ghana and Senegal have found themselves a special niche in the labour market. Brazil is the second largest meat exporter in the world and a significant part of its produce ends up in the Middle-East. Islamic-majority countries require suppliers to certify that slaughter took place in agreement with the halal method, that is, prepared by Muslims in accordance to religious practices. In a Christian country like Brazil, Islam was not seen with prejudice – on the contrary, the business opportunity was seen as “the union between the useful and the pleasant”, to put it in the words of a popular idiom.
Foreigners caught in slave conditions are not sent home – they are absorbed by the labour market due to a series of judicial precedents. Brazil has a somewhat unusual policy regarding illegal immigrants, and each case is evaluated individually. There are two thoughts behind this: first and foremost, that exploiters are the ones who should be brought to justice, with care not to re-victimise workers. Second, because immigration makes economic sense, whichever the original motivation.
According to Xavier, the possibility to re-establish through work serves to discourage crime, alongside giving access to social benefits. Initially it’s a way to promote social integration and avoid the insurgence of less adaptable groups or ethnic ghettos. Police suggest it also tackles another security-related issue: illegal immigrants face an extra problem once arrested. They are unable to receive penal benefits, like being sentenced to a semi-open regime (in which they are released to work, but sleep in prison). Their lack of formal home address not only makes it harder for them get a job, but also to be granted these benefits, due to bureaucratic requirements.
It is what it is
Accepting legal and illegal immigration as an undeniable reality is the first step towards avoiding potential problems caused by social ostracism. In Brazil, Nurul and others in similar situations were not granted refugee status because it was considered they moved for economic reasons, in search of better conditions of life and work. Instead, they benefit from a decision of the National Migration Board (CNIg). “The big question was how to remedy, so that these thousands of foreign workers would not get in an irregular situation,” said chairman Paulo Sérgio de Almeida. Motivation for granting residence was simple. “The vast majority already have jobs and have been able to integrate satisfactorily to our country”, he reasons. When the support network fails, any dug-up information is passed on back to the Federal Police and special operations are triggered.
That is why the results of the last European Parliament’s election should not be ignored, despite the fact that some European countries, like Romania, have not followed the nationalist agenda of limiting immigration. The treatment of foreign professionals still follows the scapegoat paradigm, and continues even more so after the financial crisis began to strangle the European job market. If this part of the world expects to continue as a cosmopolitan auspice, it might need to rethink its welcoming strategies to all foreigners – not just engineers, computer programmers and other high-end professionals. Lab coats, white and blue collar jobs all contribute to a country’s economy.
While Nurul awaits a permanent residence permit, he does his best to adapt to the new reality. Immigration authorities supplied him with documents in order to be allowed to work, open a bank account and other basic tasks. Currently employed as a chamberlain, he puts his efforts into Portuguese lessons so that he can look for a better job once his permit arrives. Those who, like him, have applied for asylum in the country but did not meet refugee status requirements were not extradited to their original homelands. Instead, authorities interpreted their vulnerability and offered alternative measures. In 2013 alone, over four thousand people have been granted permanent residence permits in the country under these conditions. This process may take up to six months while profiles and backgrounds are cross-checked.
Into the future
Earlier this month, former finance Minister Delfim Netto stated in an interview to G1 news site the urgent need to establish new public policies to favour immigration, based on measures already adopted by Federal Police, Foreign Ministry and other responsible agencies. “Brazil was created by our grandparents, all immigrants. Resuming immigration would be a very good option, and I suspect that part of the government knows it would be.” According to him, there is resistance from trade unions, especially over skilled manpower coming from Europe. He believes the country should be able to take in between 1.5 to 2 million people per year – especially in the mainland, where a population increase could mean further development.
Netto’s wishes might be fulfilled sooner than later, if you consider the number of requests for refugee status in Brazil: numbers have skyrocketed from 500, in 2010, to 5,200 in 2013, according to the National Committee for Refugees (CONARE). Numbers are due to increase after a new bill was approved last August: Brazil has agreed to grant citizenship to stateless people – such as the Rohingyas people, one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. According to personal preference, people who are not considered nationals by any country can now opt between being provided Brazilian citizenship or keeping their status of foreigners, but with the same rights of other legal immigrants.
The decision results from an agreement during the UN Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons, 60 years ago. “We consider the country advanced. It is one of the few who signed the conventions and the fact that it incorporated it into legislation is a significant step”, said André Ramirez, country representative for the UN Refugee Agency to Estadão. Today, another under-populated country – Uruguay – is also preparing a similar law. Such examples remain up for discussion.
Words by Scheila Silveira
Picture by seier+seier