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Brazilian solidarity with displaced Bolivians in Amazonia

News Stories, 14 October 2008

© UNHCR/B.Heger
The border post at Brasiléia in north-west Brazil. Several hundred Bolivians have fled political instability at home and sought shelter in this part of Brazil.

BRASILÉIA, Brazil, October 14 (UNHCR) Almost 600 Bolivians have crossed into the north-west Brazilian state of Acre over the past few weeks to escape political uncertainty and violence in their country linked to planned constitutional amendments.

According to official figures, some 570 Bolivians have arrived in Brazil. Most are living in the border towns of Brasiléia and Epitaciolândia in this Amazon Basin region and receiving assistance from the government. Some have found shelter with friends and relatives in Brazil.

To date, 73 of the Bolivians have presented applications for asylum to Brazil's National Refugee Committee. The UN refugee agency is working closely with the authorities at local, state and national levels on this issue while providing information and counselling to those in need of protection.

Javier López-Cifuentes, UNHCR's representative in Brazil, said the assistance provided by the authorities was in line with international standards of humanitarian assistance. "The situation in Brazil and Bolivia is being monitored and UNHCR is ready to assist and lead a UN inter-agency effort, if necessary."

The Bolivians began fleeing to Brazil in September, when President Evo Morales' plan to hold a referendum on a new constitution sparked clashes in the northern department of Pando, which neighbours Acre. The violence left some 30 people dead and martial law was imposed in Pando. About 160 Brazilians also fled across the border to escape the violence, according to official figures.

The new constitution would give greater power to Bolivia's majority indigenous people, set a limit on large landholdings and give the central government more control over the economy and resources.

Some of the Bolivians sheltering in Brasiléia said they opposed the government plans and supported opposition calls for autonomy in their regions. They also said they were not ready to return home.

UNHCR and the Brazilian authorities have been informing the displaced Bolivians about Brazil's policies on asylum and migration. Brazil, as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, guarantees the new arrivals shelter and access to refugee status determination (RSD) procedures.

"The position of Brazil is to give you shelter and protection, without intervening in Bolivia's internal issues. You can count on the protection of Brazil," Defence Minister Nelson Jobim told them during a visit to Brasiléia in early September.

About 100 of the Bolivians in Brasiléia are being accommodated in a sports hall made available by the municipality. The state authorities are providing daily meals and health care, while the federal government provides security.

But the authorities worry that there will be problems if a durable solution cannot be found soon. "We are running out of financial resources," said José Alvani Lopes, a representative of the Acre state government. He noted that they had to pay for food, health care and education for children. "Another influx of Bolivians may certainly hamper our capacity to look after newcomers," he added.

Brazil hosts around 3,800 refugees from more than 70 countries. It is also one of the few countries in the world to accept refugees for resettlement, including Colombians and Palestinians.

By Luiz Fernando Godinho in Brasiléia, Brazil

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Assessing Refugee Needs in Brazil

UNHCR staff have been visiting and talking to urban refugees around Brazil to assess their protection needs of refugees and other people of concern. The refugee agency, working with local partners, carries out a three-week Participatory Assessment every year. UNHCR uses an age, gender and diversity approach during the exercise. This means also talking to minority and vulnerable groups, including women, older people, those living with disability and more. The findings allow UNHCR to develop an appropriate protection response. This year's exercise was conducted in five cities - São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasília, Rio Grande de Sul and Manaus. Refugees taking part said the assessment allowed them to share views, problems and solutions with UNHCR and others. Various stakeholders, including government officials, aid workers and academics, also participated.

Assessing Refugee Needs in Brazil

Statelessness among Brazilian Expats

Irina was born in 1998 in Switzerland, daughter of a Brazilian mother and her Swiss boyfriend. Soon afterwards, her mother Denise went to the Brazilian Consulate in Geneva to get a passport for Irina. She was shocked when consular officials told her that under a 1994 amendment to the constitution, children born overseas to Brazilians could not automatically gain citizenship. To make matters worse,the new-born child could not get the nationality of her father at birth either. Irina was issued with temporary travel documents and her mother was told she would need to sort out the problem in Brazil.

In the end, it took Denise two years to get her daughter a Brazilian birth certificate, and even then it was not regarded as proof of nationality by the authorities. Denise turned for help to a group called Brasileirinhos Apátridas (Stateless Young Brazilians), which was lobbying for a constitutional amendment to guarantee nationality for children born overseas with at least one Brazilian parent.

In 2007, Brazil's National Congress approved a constitutional amendment that dropped the requirement of residence in Brazil for receiving citizenship. In addition to benefitting Irina, the law helped an estimated 200,000 children, who would have otherwise been left stateless and without many of thebasic rights that citizens enjoy. Today, children born abroad to Brazilian parents receive Brazilian nationality provided that they are registered with the Brazilian authorities, or they take up residence in Brazil and opt for Brazilian nationality.

"As a mother it was impossible to accept that my daughter wasn't considered Brazilian like me and her older brother, who was also born in Switzerland before the 1994 constitutional change," said Denise. "For me, the fact that my daughter would depend on a tourist visa to live in Brazil was an aberration."

Irina shares her mother's discomfort. "It's quite annoying when you feel you belong to a country and your parents only speak to you in that country's language, but you can't be recognized as a citizen of that country. It feels like they are stealing your childhood," the 12-year-old said.

Statelessness among Brazilian Expats