Integration is not easy, but Catholic organisations play an important role in assisting immigrants and refugees in Brazil, by building a bridge between the state and civil society.
The humanitarian work of Catholic institutions has been recognised since ancient times. Following their philosophy of charity and altruism, they have been acting on a range of social issues for hundreds of years, asserting and inserting themselves in societies as important (and in some cases essential) players on the structure of social aid for immigrants and refugees. In Brazil they play an important role, not only in humanitarian aid but also as representatives of civil society in governmental agencies dedicated to the matter. The connection of Caritas with the Brazilian government and their integration with local NGOs exemplifies the relation these institutions can build up along with other important actors.
The first thing we should be aware of is that the main laws regarding refugees in Brazil were established in the ’90s. Before these laws came into effect, Brazil maintained very strict and discriminatory policies concerning the reception of refugees and immigrants, accepting only Europeans because of the necessity for highly qualified labourers at that time of industrial development. The first mission of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) arrived officially in Brazil only after 1997, but the organisation’s presence and activity date from before that, though strictly limited by the directives of the military dictatorship government. During this period, the main activity of UNHCR along with Caritas Arquidiocesana de São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro was to resettle refugees in other countries. Through the government’s gradual opening in 1980, the ‘Estatuto do Estrangeiro’ (Law 6.815/80) became the first law regarding immigrants and refugees, focused mainly on security, border protection and the numerous gaps related to the preservation of human rights. Years later, the 1988’s Federal Constitution included important points related to the protection of human rights in article 5, which expresses individual and collective rights and duties of all citizens and foreigners.
The biggest breakthrough around this theme was the approval of the ‘Estatuto do Refugiado’ (Law 9.474/97), recognised by the UN as one of the most innovative and modern laws regarding the protection of refugees around the world because its text incorporates a wide understanding about the reasons for requesting asylum along with important concepts of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. From this law, CONARE was created as an inter-ministerial organisation out of tripartite collective deliberation. This means that its administration is composed of representatives from the international community (UNHCR), civil society, and government. Civil society is represented by Caritas Arquidiocesana de São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro that, working along with UNHCR, coordinate diverse assistance projects for the migrant population.
In that way, Caritas does not work exclusively on the reception of refugees, but also as one of the administrative entities working within the institutions to uphold refugees’ and migrants’ rights. Furthermore, Caritas is in charge of the interviews in refugee applications and it deliberates the eligibility of these requests. It performs a wide range of activities, with offices in over 160 countries all pursuing the same objective of helping people in vulnerable situations around the world. In relation to welcoming refugees and immigrants, Caritas in São Paulo has the Reception Centre for Refugees (CAR). This is a reference centre that deals with bureaucracies and assists with legal, psychological and social matters, requesting documents, and covering basic needs (health, housing and food). The centre also has several partnerships with local NGOs for the integration of these people into society through projects that promote learning Portuguese, technical specialisation for their insertion in the labour market, and access to education. The role of Caritas in Brazil goes beyond welcoming and encompasses several essential stages in the integration of immigrants and refugees, demonstrating how Catholic institutions can act with relevance and in harmony with the government and international bodies.
Also in São Paulo, another organisation with a strong presence related to this subject is Missão Paz. As it is a Scalabrini Catholic institution, its central mission is to advocate for the rights of migrants. The Scalabrini International Migration Network (SIMN) is present in 33 countries on 5 continents and is focused on protecting the rights of migrants. Their projects range from reception at the Casa do Migrante shelter to legal and document assistance, labour insertion, training, and health and social services. In addition, they also have a migration study centre and a periodical magazine. They have been working in São Paulo since 1974 and also in partnership with UNHCR.
With the large flow of Venezuelan refugees entering Brazil through the northern region (Roraima-RR) in recent years, we can highlight the work of another Catholic organisation, this one linked with the Society of Jesus. Operating in over 50 countries, the Serviço Jesuíta para Migrantes e Refugiados (SJMR) also focuses on assisting migrants and refugees and has structures similar to the aforementioned organisations, with projects for labour and social integration and documental, legal, psychological and educational assistance. As one of their offices is located in Roraima, they have played a key role in welcoming Venezuelan refugees, working together with other institutions, NGOs and UNHCR. But recent news shows that the reopening of the border between Brazil and Venezuela in Roraima has increased the flow of refugees and overloaded the settlements. Those working in the field have voiced the need for a national migration policy. The law alone is not enough, there is an urge for more structured government actions on the matter.
The importance of Catholic institutions in the Brazilian context is very clear. As they follow their philosophies of charity and assistance, they have become increasingly specialised over the years and a reference point in their social activities toward refugees. It is interesting to note the interreligious dialogue that they propose as everyone gets the same treatment irrespective of their faith. In Brazil, their work is essential for the integration of immigrants and refugees into society. However, we cannot forget that public policies must walk together with these civil society initiatives and also bring to light discussions around the adequacy of spaces and cities to the new facets of human mobility.
Ana Beatriz Pelicioni
Ana Beatriz Pelicioni has a Bachelor in International Relations from São Paulo State University (UNESP) and is currently taking her MA in Mobility Studies at the University of Padua, in Italy. Her interests lie in the areas of International Migration, Human Mobility and Digital Migration Studies.