Haitians first began arriving in Tabatinga, a small town located at the border between Brazil, Colombia and Peru, in March 2010. More than 1,200 Haitians, who had fled the devastation of the earthquake of January 2010 and sought asylum in Brazil, were stranded. They were not allowed to work or leave Tabatinga until they received authorization, and this was taking months. Many were living in extremely poor conditions, having spent all their savings on the journey to Brazil. In some cases, one latrine was being shared by up to 40 people. In one residence, as many as five people were living in each tiny room without proper light or ventilation.
Living in such conditions can have a serious impact on health. Stomach infections and psychological disorders were common. In mid-November, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) began offering psychological support and distributed washing kits. Staff acted as mediators and interpreters for Haitians attending Brazilian health centres, and lobbied local and provincial authorities to improve access to healthcare.
On January 11, 2012, the Brazilian Ministry of Justice announced that some 4,000 Haitians who had arrived in the country since the earthquake would be granted residence and work visas. The federal government also adopted a clear policy aimed at regularizing the situation of the Haitians in Brazil, and opened up legal migration opportunities from Haiti. As a result, the number of Haitians arriving in Tabatinga dramatically decreased. With the improvement in the situation, the program was closed in February 2012.
Many Haitians left Tabatinga for the city of Manaus. MSF lobbying of the city authorities helped ensure that they took responsibility for the people’s health needs. An MSF team also supported the response by giving training in mental healthcare and health promotion to health staff and social workers in Manaus.
In January, heavy floods and landslides affected an area north of Rio de Janeiro, leaving thousands homeless. After carrying out an assessment and indentifying gaps in mental healthcare, MSF provided training to more than 150 psychologists in four towns on how to support survivors of natural disasters. MSF also lobbied for mental healthcare to be included in the overall disaster response.
At the end of 2011, MSF had 4 field staff in Brazil. MSF first worked in the country in 1991.