Venezuelan asylum-seekers strengthen Brazil's workforce
An innovative voluntary relocation programme helps Venezuelans and their hosts thrive in cities like São Paulo and Brasilia.
Angel, an asylum-seeker from Venezuela, working as a tinsmith at General Motors in São Paulo.
© UNHCR/Miguel Pachioni
The city of Boa Vista in northern Brazil, near the border with Venezuela, was different from what 18-year-old Jefferson* expected after leaving his home country due to the lack of food and job opportunities.
Since 2015, 2.3 million people have left Venezuela. Over 150,000 Venezuelans have entered Brazil through the remote northern state of Roraima, and more than 65,000 requested asylum thus far.
In Boa Vista there were no stable jobs and the shelter was crowded, Jefferson says. Two months later, thanks to a government-led voluntary relocation programme that operates with the support from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and other UN entities, he landed in São Paulo.
Since April 2018, the Brazilian government has transferred some 3,000 Venezuelans from strained border areas in the north to other cities offering better opportunities for integration, such as São Paulo and Brasilia.
Jefferson had heard all kinds of stories about how “huge and dangerous” São Paulo was. Instead, the city turned out to be very welcoming to him – and to hundreds of other Venezuelans on the move.
“All Venezuelans want is an opportunity to work, to show their potential.”
Jefferson is now living in better conditions at the temporary shelter of São Mateus, a public shelter exclusively hosting Venezuelans managed by the municipality.
In less than three months, after learning some Portuguese and attending a vocational course from the municipality, Jefferson got hired at McDonald’s and is now able to send money back to his family in Venezuela. Very soon, he will leave the shelter for a longer-term residence.
He is thankful to Brazil: “All Venezuelans want is an opportunity to work, to show their potential.”
Jefferson’s manager at the restaurant, Jorge Luis da Silva, has had a very positive experience adding Venezuelans to his team. He decided to hire Jefferson and other three Venezuelans because they work well, are dedicated and inspire the team. “They serve as an incentive for other workers to be dedicated, they are an example,” says the manager.
Innovative initiatives set up in Brazil by the public sector – involving the federal government, state and municipalities – in collaboration with private companies, UNHCR and local partners are promoting access to the labour market for Venezuelan refugees and migrants in diverse economic activities, such as industry, services, retail, construction and farming.
Francis* has only been in São Paulo for two months after relocating with the help of the federal government and she already has a job. She assists at an interactive kiosk called “I Am Refugee,” where visitors of the São Paulo Biennial of Arts learn about refugees living in Brazil.
Francis’ children – Jorge, 10, and Emily, 2 – stayed in Venezuela with their grandparents. She dreams about the possibility of bringing the family to São Paulo so that her parents can age with dignity and her children can enjoy better schooling opportunities like art classes.
"A refugee is someone who wants an opportunity to rebuild his life and Brazil is a beautiful land where we hope to repay everything we have received,” Francis says.
“They serve as an incentive for other workers to be dedicated, they are an example.”
General Motors values diversity in its workforce and knows that hiring refugees and migrants is good for business.
“We have noticed that the arrival of refugees and migrants has brought about a different dynamic in the departments they work for,” says GM human resources manager Priscilla Barros. “People have been supporting each other more and are working with enthusiasm. When people work in an environment where they feel welcome, they bring better results to the company.”
Angel* is one of GM’s new hires. In Venezuela, he used to be a chef. Since August, he has been working as tinsmith in the car assembly line.
Now that he has a stable job, Angel hopes to bring his two sons to São Paulo. Maybe even have one of them work at the same company, he says. His oldest son, Daniel, 21, was studying electrical engineering in Venezuela, but he had to quit because of the lack of teachers and transportation options.
Angel has just moved from the São Mateus public shelter to an apartment with other three Venezuelans who are now able to afford rent and hope to bring their families to Brazil soon.
Angel misses his home country. He is grateful that other countries in the region, like Brazil, are hosting Venezuelans. “What is happening there could happen in any other country of the world,” he says.
“It's great to feel that they accept us and to see that we can be part of the future of the country.”
Through the relocation programme, Rolando* and his family – wife and two daughters – settled in Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, in July 2018. In Venezuela, Rolando was a mechanic technician in port operations. When he first arrived in Boa Vista, in northern Brazil, he worked as a bricklayer and a car washer.
Job opportunities expanded when he got to Brasilia. By participating in an employment programme supported by UNHCR and its local partners, Rolando received three job offers and decided to work at Cia da Terra, a pet shop chain.
"I already see Brazil as my second home,” he says. “It's great to feel that they accept us and to see that we can be part of the future of the country.”
The pet shop owner, Priscilla Davis, was moved when she saw on TV that so many Venezuelans were arriving in Brasilia.
“We know that Brazil is far from perfect, but I figured that if these people were leaving their homes, families and everything else behind, then the situation in their country must be really unsustainable,” she says. “It’s clear that they would need jobs to be able to carry on.”
Priscilla was planning on hiring two people as general service assistants in her pet shop. She was delighted with the proactivity, commitment and joy all Venezuelans showed during the job interviews. At the end of the selection process, she ended up hiring three Venezuelans.
"We are a team,” Priscilla adds. “When a new person arrives with willpower, expressing joy for being there, in a different country, that touches everyone in company – it ends up motivating everyone. I'm undoubtedly coming out of here much more motivated than when I arrived.”
For Rolando, his main motivation is his children: “I already did what I had to do. I studied and achieved many good things in Venezuela. Now, my dreams are the dreams of my children.”
*Surnames removed for protection reasons.