Displaced Venezuelans struggle to survive in northern Brazil

Humanitarian and medical needs of Venezuelan migrants and asylum seekers in Roraima state, Brazil

Brazil 2019 © Victoria Servilhano/MSF

Thousands of people who fled the ongoing crisis in Venezuela are now living in precarious conditions and struggling to access medical care in Brazil’s Roraima state.

The northern state of Roraima is the main gateway into Brazil for Venezuelans fleeing the ongoing economic, political, and social crisis in their country. The influx of migrants and asylum seekers into Brazil has increased dramatically since 2017. Currently, about 600 Venezuelans enter Roraima every day.

Informal estimates report around 100,000 Venezuelans in Roraima—one-fifth of the state’s total population. According to official figures, about 40,000 migrants and asylum seekers now live in the state capital, Boa Vista.

Most are living in difficult conditions. Roraima has the least developed economy in Brazil and a fragile health system that lacks doctors and essential medical supplies. As a result, the state’s infrastructure is struggling to cope with this large influx of Venezuelans.

Living on the streets

All 13 of Roraima’s official shelters are at capacity, hosting around 6,000 people in total. Half are children, as most Venezuelans who came to Brazil brought their families with them. Many more live outside the shelters, in poorly maintained or abandoned buildings without electricity or water, or on the streets. In Boa Vista alone, some 23,000 Venezuelans currently live in damaged buildings and more than 3,000 live on the street.

The hardships faced by migrants and asylum seekers not hosted in shelters have a direct impact on their health. “We treat conditions related to the lack of hygiene and sanitation, such as diarrhea,” said MSF physician Mariana Valente, who works at a health center run by the Boa Vista municipality in the 13 de Setembro district. “There are also many people with flu symptoms, pneumonia, sinusitis, and otitis [ear infection]. Intestinal parasites and scabies are common as well.”

Humanitarian and medical needs of Venezuelan migrants and asylum seekers in Roraima state, Brazil
Brazil 2019 © Victoria Servilhano/MSF

Many people living on the city’s streets find refuge in an area behind Boa Vista’s bus station. Every day when the sun sets, more than a thousand migrants and asylum seekers set up a small “tent town” in an open-roofed area. Few people own tents, but the Brazilian army lends them to those in need. Mattresses are not provided, and people who don’t own one sleep directly on the ground.

“There’s a lot of dust and dirty water in this place, many things that are making us and our children sick,” said Cezar Martínez, a Venezuelan man who spends his nights near the bus station with his wife and three children. At night, people who stay there are also given free food at a cafeteria near the campsite. However, the area must be cleared each morning at 6:00 a.m. Only people who are sick are permitted to stay there during the day.

Martínez said that, though the situation is difficult, he feels thankful for all the organizations and ordinary Brazilians who are helping his family and other Venezuelans.

Shelters stretched to the limit

Living conditions in the 13 official shelters are not much better, particularly in those dedicated to hosting indigenous groups: Janokoida, in the town of Pacaraima, and Pintolândia, in Boa Vista.

In Pintolândia, more than 500 members of the Warao ethnic group and 30 members of the E´ñepá ethnic group live in dozens of tents and hundreds of hammocks. Most hammocks are installed in what used to be an athletics court. The shelter is located below street level; a layer of gravel covers the ground to prevent it from being permanently wet. But when the rain comes, the area floods and the tents—and the residents’ few belongings—get soaked.

Humanitarian and medical needs of Venezuelan migrants and asylum seekers in Roraima state, Brazil
Brazil 2019 © Victoria Servilhano/MSF

Israel, a member of the Warao group, was cleaning his family’s tent after a flood. “It rained a lot the other day,” he said. “The mattresses and the children’s clothes got very wet.”

“Not only can the area easily become flooded, but we are in an equatorial region, so it rains very hard,” said Sara Lopes, an MSF water and sanitation technician. “Part of our drainage plan was executed, but more needs to be done.”

For now, water points in the shelter remain scarce. The water used to wash pots, pans, and clothes must be carried from outside in buckets, and toilets are frequently clogged. In the communal kitchen, people cook on open fires. They eat whatever is given to them, usually beef and rice. But even in the kitchen, sanitary conditions are far from optimal. The ever-present humidity and poor hygiene increase the numbers of mosquitoes and cockroaches, which can quickly lead to the spread of disease.

Humanitarian and medical needs of Venezuelan migrants and asylum seekers in Roraima state, Brazil
Brazil 2019 © Victoria Servilhano/MSF

People in the Pintolândia shelter face the added challenge of being excluded from Brazil’s “interiorization” program, a government and United Nations-sponsored scheme that allows migrants and asylum seekers and their families to be voluntarily transferred to other areas of the country. Indigenous people are ineligible for the program.

“It’s like taking a bird, putting it in a cage, giving him what he doesn’t want,” said Delio Silva, a member of the Warao group who lives in Pintolândia. “That´s the way the indigenous live here.”

Humanitarian and medical needs of Venezuelan migrants and asylum seekers in Roraima state, Brazil
Brazil 2019 © Victoria Servilhano/MSF

Stuck in this limbo, some still try their best to improve their conditions and work to make ends meet. Women make and sell crafts woven from buriti (a local palm tree) fiber, while men collect scrap metal on the streets of Boa Vista. They use the money to buy food to supplement their diet, such as vegetables, river fish, and flour.

Facing an uncertain future

Other migrants and asylum seekers try to remain positive, despite the daily adversities. “I had to make my family understand that everything is good,” said Ricardo Calzadía, who now lives at the Jardim Floresta shelter with his wife, Milagros, and daughter, Saraí. He proudly explained how he was able to enroll his eight-year-old daughter at a school that is one hour by foot from the shelter. He makes the daily journey, back and forth, with Saraí.

“Before, we used to eat, just the three of us, in our house. Now we share a cafeteria with 600 other families. We also share the bathroom with them,” said Ricardo, another Venezuelan who could previously afford a comfortable life back home. “The family has grown. . . . Sometimes you have to look at things in a positive way. It will help us to move on.”

MSF launched activities in the Brazilian state of Roraima at the end of 2018, providing medical consultations, mental health assistance, technical advice about water and sanitation, and health promotion activities.