Brazilian Shelters Overwhelmed by Influx of Desperate Venezuelans


As soon as the traffic lights turn red, a swarm of young Venezuelans with sponges and plastic bottles of detergent surround cars offering to clean the windshield for a bit of spare change.

Others fleeing economic hardship at home and trying to get by in this city in Brazil's north stand on corners and wield signs advertising their workplace skills.

More discretely, and at night, Venezuelan women work street corners to sell sex in this capital city of the state of Roraima, which borders the crisis-stricken Venezuela.

There are Venezuelans everywhere -- in plazas, in parks, you name it. Those capable pool their money and rent a place to live.

City hall in Boa Vista estimates there are some 40,000 Venezuelans in this city of 330,000 -- but nobody knows for sure.

"We are facing a humanitarian crisis," Mayor Teresa Surita told AFP.

She said the Brazilian central government has been slow to deal with the massive influx over the past three years of Venezuelans fleeing shortages of food, medicine and work back home.

"There have been a lot of meetings and not much action," she said. "We are always in crisis mode because of the lack of planning."

The government in Brasilia recently announced measures to confront the crisis. But you would never know that in the streets of Boa Vista, where it is hard to walk without tripping over somebody from Venezuela, desperately trying to survive.

Three makeshift shelters were set up last year, but they only have room to accommodate some 1,500 people, a third of those deemed to be in absolutely desperate conditions.

- Right to work -  

The government estimates between 500 and 1,200 Venezuelans cross the border -- situated about 215 kilometers from Boa Vista -- into Brazil every day. 

Many obtain legal status by declaring themselves refugees or receive temporary residence. Then they move on to Boa Vista in search of work. But few find anything.

Rene Santos, 42, left his wife and three children back home in Ciudad Bolivar, nearly 1,000 kilometers away. 

He has no work. For months he has been living under a tarp on -- go figure -- Venezuela Avenue.

"There are a lot of professionals in this plaza," said Santos, who worked in the steel industry back home.   

"What we need is help from someone who defends human rights," said Santos, tears filling his eyes. He insists that the right to work is a universally recognized human right.

- 'Like a criminal' -

In that square, hundreds of Venezuelans have been sleeping on the ground for months, appearing totally abandoned in a place where signs in various languages proclaim "Welcome to Boa Vista."

The Venezuelans use the restroom of a nearby gas station or a bus station. They eat thanks to the charity of people like Leila Bezerra, who prepares them meals when she receives donated food a couple times a month.

"We must help. They are not here because they want to be. They are here because they are hungry," said Bezerra as she stirred a huge pot of beans and sausage.

Some Brazilians may be trying to help but xenophobia is on the rise, as expressed in discrimination and a lack of political will to help these people, said France Rodrigues, a professor at the Federal University of Roraima. 

"What we need is action from those who rule. But what we see are politicians who want to close the border or clean out the city because they do not want Venezuelans here," said Rodrigues.

Her comments stand in stark contrast to those of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, who several weeks ago praised the government of Brazil as "a human rights champion."

Victor Lira, 27, traveled nearly 1,500 km from Caracas to get here. That was three months ago. He still has no work, and lives under a makeshift tarp fashioned from black plastic bags.

"I managed to get two reais ($0.60) and went to the market to buy bananas. They thought I was out to steal something. Do you know what it is like to be treated like a criminal when all you want to do is buy food?," he said, crying.

Brazil has promised to digest all the migration from Venezuela, but little has been done.

To fill the first 530 residency openings in two other states, only 20 Venezuelans will be able to travel there because of sanitary and other requirements, said mayor Surita.

"What we are doing does not resolve the situation," she said.

"Events are moving forward while we debate," said the sociologist Rodrigues.

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