“Whenever we say something, they reply, ‘You don’t run this place, we do. You are immigrants.’” This is the reality reported by Warao leader Fredy Cardona, who lives with his family in the only public shelter available to the migrant indigenous community in Belém, the capital city of the state of Pará, Brazil.
The space is a large industrial warehouse administered by the John Paul XXIII Foundation (Funpapa), an institution responsible for humanitarian action that is part of the Belém municipal authority. At the location, complaints abound: rotten food, dirty toilets, heat, lack of communication, doctors and even police harassment.
From the outside, nothing identifies the building as a shelter. Entry is restricted; only authorised personnel may go in. Brasil de Fato was the only media that accompanied the inspections done on 5 and 6 August by the Federal Public Ministry (MPF).
On the inside, the warehouse is sectioned by metal structures that house the families. Though possessing a high ceiling and ample space that allows for air circulation, those housed there say that they experienced temperatures of up to 45°C.
According to the United Nations, since 2014, more than 4 000 Warao have entered Brazil from Venezuela. Escaping the economic crisis ravaging the neighbouring country, they are an addition to the tens of thousands of Venezuelan citizens that apply for – and receive – refugee status in Brazil, alleging violations of their human rights back home.
Furthermore, the UN says that there are around 1 000 Warao in the state of Pará. Out of this total, 450 live in the capital Belém and 225 are currently in the shelter.
Lack of dialogue
The location has instruction signs in Spanish and Warao. However, according to the residents, communication is a major problem. They say that many of the issues that arise could be resolved with more dialogue.
An example of this is the expulsion of two Warao men, Abílio Cardona and Firmin Cardona, from the shelter. They were celebrating Father’s Day – which is commemorated on 20 June in Venezuela – but the party ended badly with the municipal guard being called, things escalating and police force being used.
“I saw the cops hit women and children, and even use gas [pepper spray]. There were three newborn kids, only days old. Some fell to the floor because of the gas. I asked them to stop but they said, “You aren’t Brazilian. If you die, you die. You aren’t worth anything,’” he recounted.
After the incident, Abílio Cardona says he was called in by the shelter’s social workers, who forced him to sign a release document. And since he doesn’t know Portuguese, he signed it without knowing what it was. “After I signed it, she said my cousin and I had to leave. I wanted to talk, to understand why they called the police in the first place. She said if I didn’t leave she would call them again,” said Abílio.
When asked about the incident, Funpapa stated only that after the occurrence, “some of the norms were adapted, in agreement with the Warao”. The two Warao men who were kicked out have not been allowed to return.
Another major problem is food, which is given to the refugees in two ways: meals provided by the shelter, and the food they prepare themselves in wooden stoves – there are 18 available – purchased with money the families raise themselves.
The Warao complain that the food provided is rationed, “with no taste” and sometimes even rotten. “We see a lot of food being delivered here, but it doesn’t get to us. I’ve at times seen boxes and boxes of yams yet we have never eaten that here,” Warao leader Fredy Cardona reported.
Members of the indigenous community have a strong desire to cook their own food. “Why can’t we cook all this food that arrives? We have already asked for gas stoves – they say they’re going to bring some but won’t tell us when,” added Fredy Cardona.
In their makeshift shelter, men, women, children and the elderly are forced to use an unsanitary bathroom. The place reeks of faeces and urine, the walls are dirty and the floor is flooded.
To use the facilities, the Warao have to put their feet into this dirty water every day. “We feel itches on our bodies and almost everyone has fungus on their nails,” complained community member Maria Lígia Pérez García.
The toilets have no doors on the stalls and physical necessities are done in a hole in the ground. García told us that one of the elderly residents fell inside the toilet after squatting and could not get up. The lady became covered in urine and faeces. “We have a nurse here, but no doctor, no ambulance. If someone becomes ill there is no way of taking them to the hospital,” she added.
In the bathroom’s entrance, various buckets collect water beneath the sinks. The Warao say that the water that comes from the showers is insufficient. Therefore, they disconnect the pipes under the sinks for water collection. “We don’t want to destroy the bathroom, we don’t want to destroy anything. We just want to have access to water,” explained Jesus Nuñez.
To add insult to injury, the indigenous refugee community hasn’t had any cleaning supplies delivered in four weeks, something necessary to keep their quarters clean. “We’ve gone a week without lights in the bathroom. We also need gloves since we eat with our hands and may contract some illness. There is also the issue of the flooded floor in the bathroom. We need to clean it every day otherwise the kids play in it and may get sick,” he concluded.
Covid-19 and indigenous health
Throughout Brazil, according to MPF data, 10 deaths from Covid-19 have been reported among the Warao, the majority of them in Belém.
In a press release, Funpapa says that the “Center for Migrant and Refugee Assistance has provided aid and identified the vulnerabilities and necessities within the indigenous community”.
Edited by Rodrigo Chagas and Rodrigo Durão Coelho
This article was first published in Brasil de Fato.