Brazil, once a haven, now a dead end for many Haitians

Haitian migrant in Brazil longs for home

Jocelyn Benoit, a unemployed Haitian migrant in Brazil, struggles to survive the country's economic downturn.
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Jocelyn Benoit, a unemployed Haitian migrant in Brazil, struggles to survive the country's economic downturn.

Jocelyn Benoit wants to go home. He just can’t.

Benoit is one of thousands of Haitians stuck in Brazil, where many headed after the island’s 2010 earthquake. They withstood arduous journeys across Andean high plains and Amazonian jungles to reach Brazil — only to find themselves a few years later in a worse economic situation than the one they fled. Now many are weighing an equally perilous exit, to other Latin American countries or even the U.S.

Benoit, 32, arrived in 2014, lured by what seemed a promising future. Brazil was hosting soccer’s World Cup that year and in two more would host the Olympics in Rio. Work would be plentiful, he assumed.

“I got here in 2014, things were better. In 2015, things started to go down,” Benoit said.

Brazil is now mired in its worst economic downturn since it returned to democratic rule in 1985. Haitians, always at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, have seen their work disappear.

“I am unemployed. Everyone is unemployed,” Benoit said, interviewed at an evangelical church in the sprawling urban slum of Jacarepagua in northwest Rio de Janeiro.

Originally, he landed a job in construction as he had hoped. But then he became ill with tuberculosis, requiring seven months of treatment before he was better.

“I am good to work, but I can’t find any,” said Benoit, who has a wife and two young daughters back in Haiti. “I want to see my family. I have no way to earn money for airfare to go see them. I am praying to God for help.”

Other Haitians, like LaPhontan Papayer, a fellow parishioner at the Assembly of the City, say they spent a life savings just to get to Brazil. Now, with little to show for the difficult trip through Ecuador to Peru and the Amazon, they are despondent.

Papayer, 40 and unemployed since April, is desperate to find work so he can send money home to his wife and five children in Haiti: “The Brazilian people are marvelous … but because of economic problems, everything is expensive, there is not enough work, so many Haitians are really suffering here.”

Brazil grants 2,000 visas a month to Haitians seeking to relocate. Even with the economic downturn, Brazil remains open to Haitians, though many are leaving.

“If we decide to receive them in Brazil, it’s not up to us to tell them, ‘Look don't go to Brazil because conditions are not ideal.’ We cannot say that. It’s up to them to decide,” Fernando Vidal, Brazil’s ambassador to Haiti, recently told McClatchy in Haiti.

The number of Haitians arriving today in Brazil through the informal routes has slowed to a trickle. A refuge in the state of Acre has closed. The flow of humanity now goes in the other direction.

“About 35 percent have left, many are still leaving and many are preparing,” said Fedo Bacourt, a Haitian immigrant and history professor who founded the Social Union of Haitian Immigrants (USIH), a group in Sao Paulo that provides social services to immigrants across Brazil. “Life here is very, very hard. … You can count on your hands the number of migrants who are working.”

Many Haitians, lacking solid Portuguese and unaccustomed to Brazil’s ways, fall prey to predatory employers, said Bacourt, including some who engage in what Brazilian law calls “conditions analogous to slavery.” These Haitian workers aren’t paid, or they’re fed and housed but charged more than they earn.

Haitians are leaving Brazil for places that might offer new opportunities. Many try Chile. Others make the longer journey to Costa Rica.

Valéry Numa, a Haitian journalist and radio personality who premiered his documentary Destination Brésil — or Destination Brazil — to a packed audience in August in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince said he didn’t fully understand the level of suffering in Brazil until he visited for his documentary.

“It was a shock for me when I realized that there were Haitians who were sleeping underneath bridges,” he said. “Another shock was the realization that there were Haitians who have been in Brazil for three years and not working. They aren’t doing anything to make ends meet. They survive at the mercy of churches.”

Between 2014 and 2015, some 40,000 Haitians left Brazil for Chile, Numa estimates, but Chile is simply another step, “a place for them to do some kind of standby to [eventually] enter the United States.”

One of the few avenues of help for Haitians in Brazil is the non-profit group Viva Rio, with offices in both countries. The group — through its Haiti Aqui project — help Haitians in Brazil with training, job tips and an online radio program in Creole. The idea, said Rubem Fernandes, Viva Rio’s director and a noted anthropologist, is to help them “assimilate without losing their culture.”

But Brazil hasn’t turned out to be the answer for the Haitians who can no longer make a living. “A Haitian here can’t live without training. You will earn little and we need to earn more [to send home],” said Liger Ernest, a young Haitian in the church band. “There are lots of Haitians who are drowning in the seas, in the rivers. We need another place to live.”

Franco Ordonez in the Washingon bureau and Jaqueline Charles of the Miami Herald contributed to this report.

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