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Migrants in Brazil's biggest city: How São Paulo reduced crime, encouraged integration and supported enterprising migrants

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All pictures by the São Paulo City Human Rights and Citizenship Secretary (Secretaria Municipal de Direitos Humanos da Cidade de São Paulo), courtesy of the author.

Since 2013, the evolution of policies aimed at supporting migrants in the city of São Paulo has become an example of successful integration, along with the reduction of crime, higher employment, and the creation of enterprises by migrants.


In 2016 São Paulo city drew up a new municipal policy plan for migrants to expand the existing policies and comply with the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals from 2021 to 2024. With the formation of a local council for the migrant population to encourage collaboration between government, corporations, migrants and migrant associations, projects could be launched, aimed at serving and supporting refugees and migrants, whilst also bringing good results to the city of São Paulo. São Paulo’s procedures have since become an example of best practices in supporting the integration of migrants and refugees.


Nowadays, there are almost 1 million foreigners living in Brazil. São Paulo, with 14 million residents, has 360,000 migrants, making up 40% of the nation’s total migrant population. The first migrant wave in recent times comprised Haitians and Syrians in 2010, with hundreds of thousands arriving and collapsing the public services at some border cities. The second wave was marked by the arrival of Venezuelans in 2017, prompted by the economic crisis there. Finally, Argentinians continue to migrate to Brazil due to the economic crisis and severe COVID-19 outbreaks in Argentina, creating a third migration wave.

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For many years leading up to these recent reforms in São Paulo, however, migrants have faced significant exploitation across Brazil. Criminal groups used disinformation to deceive and exploit migrants in the production of clothing, agriculture, cleaning, and cooking services. The sexual exploitation of adult women and children by these criminal groups was also common. The International Organization for Migration estimates trafficking and exploiting a person can generate a profit of between $4,000 and $50,000 a year.


It is only with an integrated system between government, corporations and society that the fight against such crimes can begin to succeed. Such migratory governance in the city of São Paulo has helped in reducing modern slavery and the irregular labour conditions of migrants and refugees. Between 2013 to 2021, 41 police raids occurred to fight slavery-like work, freeing 391 migrants from those conditions in São Paulo. The reduction in migrants' illegal exploitation and the increase of police operations to fight human slavery reflect the results of public policy focused on human rights, information, and strong relationships with NGOs and businesses.


Increasing the participation and activism of migrants within the city of São Paulo has also been linked to a reduction in irregular migrant labour amid migrant communities, as migrants gain more information about their rights and duties. 

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In the city of São Paulo, by allowing migrants access to public services and targeted information, not only did instances of exploitation and trafficking reduce, but these changes led to greater migrant employment and entrepreneurialism. This model of migrant integration has been led by major cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Recife.


Between 2017 and 2020, the São Paulo city government attended more than 30,000 requests from migrants, providing guidance and support, with services organised by São Paulo county and the NGO Franciscan Solidarity Service. In addition, the city hired nearly 5,000 civil servants to better manage migrants and refugees, to improve guidance on issues such as official documentation, access to education, health, help in getting a job, and support to start a business.


Another key point for the integration of migrants in the city was facilitating the opening of bank accounts and supporting migrants to remit money to family members abroad. Before this change, banks created unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles that prevented migrants from accessing bank services, leaving them exposed to theft and other crimes.

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Establishing these humane policies and practices follows ten years of government decisions emerging after successive waves of migration to Brazil. The migration governance approach developed in the city of São Paulo has proved essential for the integration of migrants and refugees and in upholding their human rights. These policies have been especially impactful in helping migrants access the labour market, generating jobs and income. This leads to better results and sustainable integration, rather than criminalisation and xenophobia.


It seems likely that, with the evolution of public policies over the last decade in São Paulo and their effects across government, corporations and NGOs, the impact of a new wave of migration today would be simpler to manage than before. São Paulo's lesson now stands to be repeated in other cities in Brazil and across Latin America. 

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Luiz Philipe De Oliveira

Luiz Philipe De Oliveira is a lawyer, and holds an MSc and PhD in International Law (international migration) from São Paulo University Law School.

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