It’s a rainy and cold afternoon in São Paulo. Along with Fedo Bakuti, 38, coordinator of the Social Union of Haitian Immigrants (USIH), an association affiliated to CSP-Conlutas, I go to the shelter in which are hundreds of Haitian immigrants that arrive every day at São Paulo.
On the way, Fedo explains he works in construction and came to Brazil in 2013. “Most of the Haitians came to Brazil after the earthquake.” The earthquake in Haiti happened in 2010 and was catastrophic for the country. It caused more than 300,000 deaths, devastated homes and the weak infrastructure of the country. More than one and a half million people became homeless.
I reach the courtyard of the shelter where many Haitians do what they can to protect from the rain under canopies. Beside it is the Church of Our Lady of Peace.
Soon I start talking with the immigrants. Many explain that they worked with advertising, are lawyers or graduates in other university courses. “Brazil could make better use of our skills. I, for instance, have two graduate degrees and speak seven languages,” explains Fedo.
However, the reality upon arriving in Brazil is extremely harsh. “People spend a lot of money to come. It’s hard to find anyone who came by Acre who spent under US$ 3,000. They arrive in Acre with no money, no clothes, nothing at all,” said Fedo.
Suspicion and solidarity
I am introduced to the young Bernardo Frank, also a member of USIH. I say that I’m a journalist and he does not hide some suspicion. He says many journalists from the mainstream press went there and published absolutely superficial matters or only reinforced stereotypes and spread prejudices. I explain that I write for a newspaper committed to the social and popular struggle, unsure whether this had some effect.
Anyway, Bernardo tells a little of his story. Graduated in law in Haiti, the young man observes that he entered Brazil via the state of Acre and worked as a mechanic assistant in Manaus (state of Amazonas). After reaching São Paulo, he spent seven months unemployed until he found work as a clerk at a supermarket. Grabbing a briefcase, Bernardo shows his law degree, numerous other certificates of technical courses, such as office clerk, which he applied for trying to get a job.
Suddenly Ronaldo appears. He also came to Brazil through Acre. The 5-days, trip by bus to Sao Paulo is summed up in four words: “It was very difficult.” Many come here with only the clothes on and penniless.
“The Union arose to help Haitian immigrants who often arrive in Brazil and face hunger, cold and have to sleep on the streets,” said Fedo.
Racism and prejudice
But the problems do not end there. Upon arriving in Brazil, the disappointment is strong. Besides the difficulty in finding work, Haitians are faced with another problem. “There is a very strong prejudice here. First it is the color of people’s skin, with the study and communication problems that we have. Sometimes we have arguments with our co-workers. On the subway and buses, people keep staring at us. Blacks are treated like thieves,” said Fedo. Reality undoes any myth that Brazil is a welcoming country.
I go back to talking to Bernardo. While he reminds a bit more of his story, I see several groups of Haitians looking at the gate of the shelter’s courtyard. I can see a reporter of a large broadcaster at the entrance. The staff did not even enter the shelter; they just shot another scene for transmission during prime time.
How the immigrants come to Brazil
Most Haitians arrive in the state of Acre. The estimate of the Social Union of Haitian Immigrants is that there are over 50,000 people who came from the Caribbean island over here.
In January 2013, I was in Brasileia (Acre), the main gateway to Brazil. I spoke with newly arrived immigrants who were taking baths with bowls in the middle of the street. They said the lodging was overcrowded because there were more than 400 people in a house that could fit at most 40 people.
In São Paulo, the large influx of immigrants began on April and May 2014 when the government of the state of Acre chartered buses to send immigrants to São Paulo state’s capital. “At the time, we sheltered 300 people in the hall, plus 110 in the House of the Migrant. However in February and March this year there was a string of coaches arriving every day from Acre”, said Priest Paulo, from the Peace mission, which assists the immigrants arriving in the city.
Women make up a smaller group of immigrants. According to the estimates of the Peace mission, out of 10 Haitians, one is a woman. “Many come to meet their partner who is already here. Others come on their own to try to find a job,” said the priest.
Most leave Haiti by paying out large sums to so-called coyotes. They are recruiters who are lurking around the Brazilian consulate over there in Haiti. “In the queues, these people come by and say: ‘Look, you’ll have to wait a year and a half or two to get the visa. I can make you get in Brazil in eighteen days. You give me 4 or 5 thousand dollars, and I get you in,” explained priest Paulo.
The priest warns that nowadays, some coyotes are taking migrants to a neighboring country such as Peru and delivers them to another coyote who charges the Haitian with more money for their entry into Brazil. This is when many episodes of extortion and blackmail happen. “I remember of an immigrant who was taken to Peru and was locked up for days because he had no money to pay the coyote,” priest Paulo notes. “They left this immigrant locked up until his family sent the money from Haiti so that he could continue his journey,” he says.
For Fedo, this situation is very common. “These people have no money for anything, not even to pay for a visa. They have to appeal to their family in Haiti to send more cash so they can catch a coach to Acre” he says.
Women are also victims of the disgusting actions of the coyotes. “There was a woman that they took all her clothes off. They left her naked to see if she had hidden money. Such is a terrible situation that those guys impose on the Haitians,” says priest Paulo.
Haiti occupation: Brazil has to withdraw its troops
Brazil has a big reason to be ashamed before the Haitians. Since 2004, the PT government sent the Brazilian Army to lead a shameful UN military occupation of Haiti under the guise of being a “peace mission”. For all these years, the occupation has only served the interests of big businessmen. Brazilian troops have cracked down on strikes and protest marches of workers and students. They were also the target of accusations of rape and abuse of human rights by numerous humanitarian organizations.
Over this entire period, the CSP-Conlutas held caravans and campaigns in solidarity with the Haitian people demanding an end to military occupation. And now with immigration, it is the government’s duty to ensure decent living conditions to this suffering people, providing the necessary infrastructure for them to survive with dignity, like housing and jobs. In addition to supervise the possible irregularities to which the Haitian people are exposed by businessmen who exploit such a workforce in highly precarious jobs.
Translation: Gabriel Tolstoy