Warao migrants receive a cool reception in Brazil

This first of a three-part series shows that while the Venezuelans’ host country has a social assistance plan, it is ineffective and does not address institutional racism.

Translated by Ítalo Piva

In shelters, run-down homes or on the streets of Brazil, natives of the Warao who migrated from Venezuela routinely face a number of difficulties. They live with a lack of water, food, healthcare and medicine besides being targets of violence and xenophobia.

In 2017, Jesus Desidério Nuñez was one of the first Warao to arrive in Belém, the capital of the state Pará. He would sleep on the streets with his family near the Ver-o-peso market. Like the majority of Warao who migrated to Pará, he is from the Delta Amacuro region of Venezuela, a long and arduous journey away.

Venezuela faces a severe economic crisis because of the low price of petroleum as well as a series of economic sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies beginning in 2014. Faced with this situation, parts of the population – both natives and non-natives – have migrated to other countries, including Brazil, in order to survive. 

Undated: A house near the Ver-o-peso market in Belém where Warao migrants usually take shelter.

Journey for survival

To get to the Pará state capital, the Warao must traverse over land and water. Unable to speak Portuguese and tired after a long journey, Nuñez, his wife and seven children were able to rent a room in a pension near the Ver-o-peso market.

In the area, known for being a hub for sex work, there are many boarding houses frequented by the homeless as well as drug users. The front of the building in which Nuñez and his family lived bears the burn marks of a fire set by drug users in 2018, a community constantly at odds with indigenous peoples.

“I lived in that place for three months. It was a difficult time,” Nuñez remembered. At the time, he would pay R$20 [about R63 today] a day for each family member.

Currently, he and his family live in a public shelter in the Tapaña neighbourhood – the only one available to the Warao in Belém.

August 2020: Evelio Mariano came to Pará state in northern Brazil in search of work after he was let go from his job as a handyman’s assistant in Manaus, Amazonas state.

Different Warao, different state, same story

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, about 4 000 Warao have entered Brazil since 2014. Though the federal government makes R$20 000 available monthly for each group of 50 migrants, there is no integrated plan between the union, state and municipal authorities to assure their rights are protected.

The location where Nuñez settled in 2017 in the Ver-o-peso area is a kind of gateway for many Warao that arrive in Belém. Indigenous community member Celso Zapata, who is a newcomer to Belém, followed in Nuñez’s footsteps alongside six other families.

The front of the building has an abandoned look that doesn’t change once inside. A long corridor gives access to seven bedrooms with no windows, rotting doors and exposed electrical wiring. The wood panelling is broken, allowing for the equally precarious roof to be seen.

Undated: The entrance to the building in the Campina neighbourhood in which the Warao are living, close to the Ver-o-peso market.

In a city like Belém, the absence of windows turns any space into a furnace. Things only get worse when entire families are present in rooms no bigger than 10m⁤². The owner charges R$30 daily for each family member, or R$210. This turns into R$6 300 if they stay the entire month.

The day that the Brasil de Fato news team visited the location, Zapata’s brother, Evelio Mariano, was frying chicken for lunch in the room’s kitchen space, the only place with windows.

The food was bought with the money the women raised on the streets. “I’m unemployed so she went out to work. She is tired and because of that I’m the one cooking lunch,” said Mariano, pointing at his wife, when asked if he always does the cooking. While he fried the chicken, the Warao native kept repeating: “I just want a job, any job.”

Undated: Arminda Baez, Celso Zapata’s wife, with the food they bought after collecting money in the streets.

A better life

Zapata came to Belém in search of “a more dignified life for his relatives, especially the children”. The migration to Pará state occurred after he lost his job in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, where he worked as a handyman’s assistant. With the onset of the pandemic, he and other colleagues were let go.

“I then saw myself jobless and on the streets, with no other opportunities. I tried to get another job, knocked on doors, but didn’t find one. Neither I nor my brothers [did],” Zapata told us. He migrated to Belém in a group of 20 Warao adults and eight children.

Anthropologist Marlise Rosa, who has a doctorate in social anthropology from the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, has been following the Warao situation in Brazil since 2017. She says the lack of a unified assistance programme, articulated at the federal, state and municipal levels, makes it so that every time the Warao move to a different city they need to start from scratch.

“The very process of moving is a delicate one. In most cases, they have the money for transportation but no money to eat. We see people arriving at new locations totally weakened. What happens is that when they get to these cities – though they are not the first Warao to arrive, as is the case in Belém – there is no team, no institution that provides a network of support.”

Undated: A mother feeds her daughter on the kitchen floor.

Recurring errors

These days there are reports of the Warao population living in all five regions of Brazil. However, the majority is concentrated in the north in cities like Pacaraima and Boa Vista in the state of Roraima, Manaus in Amazonas, and in 11 cities throughout Pará.

“We need to comprehend, accept and prepare for the fact that the Warao presence in Brazil will continue. Thus we need to come up with effective answers, which obviously need to take into account the viewpoint of the natives,” argued Rosa.

In October 2019, the attorney general’s office and the Pará state attorney signed a judicial agreement titled “Terms of Enshrined Rights”, which sought to implement measures that would provide shelter and humanitarian assistance to the Warao in Belém.

Ten months after the signing of the agreement and three years since the first Warao arrived in the state capital, federal attorney Felipe de Moura Palha e Silva affirmed that there is a string of errors in the humanitarian aid provided to these people.

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“The errors and initial aversion they face will repeat themselves everywhere they go. If you talk to authorities in the northeastern region, you will hear of the same mistakes that happened here. Therefore, the aversion and institutional racism the Warao faced when they first arrived three or four years ago is happening again in the context of their voluntary moves from town to town,” he explained.

The Ministry of Citizenship said in a press release that the Warao are being offered shelter, food, personal hygiene kits, cleaning supplies, basic health services and access to other public policies like security and the provision of material for arts and crafts.

Responsible for the humanitarian assistance provided to the Warao in Pará, the John Paulo XXIII Foundation informed us that it had sent various project proposals regarding shelter to the state, all within the framework of the National Social Assistance Plan. However, the Ministry of Citizenship had enacted budget cuts. “The first project sent to the [ministry] was budgeted at R$6 million but ended up receiving only R$1.2 million,” the foundation alleged.

In response, the ministry said that it “follows analysis protocols for any plans presented to the state. Among these, we consider, for example, that the number of migrants and refugees identified in the territory, as well as the actions set forth in our plan, adhere effectively to the guidelines set forth in the National Social Assistance Plan.”

Edited by Rodrigo Chagas

This article was first published in Brasil de Fato.

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