April 20, 2018 / 3:55 PM / 5 months ago

Rush to house record number of Venezuelan refugees as rainy season looms in Brazil's north

RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Brazilian authorities and aid groups are rushing to help tens of thousands of Venezuelan refugees before the start of the rainy season in northern Roraima state this month, even as government leaders clash over a request to close the border.

On Friday, a U.N.-backed center opened in Boa Vista, the capital of Brazil’s Roraima state, to help migrants fleeing Venezuela’s economic and political crisis with getting documents and applying for refugee status.

More than 800 Venezuelans arrive in northern Brazil daily, the government has said.

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said the center would provide consolidated information for refugees, most of whom do not know the immigration rules and must visit several government offices.

“(It’s purpose is) to establish a reference for these people so that they can seek all information in one place - and at the same time to unburden the public services,” said Luiz Fernando Godinho Santos, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Brazil.

He said the center would also direct Venezuelans to shelters, help them to integrate in Brazil, and give information about health services and procedures to be taken in case of violence and gender issues.

Boa Vista authorities say 50,000 refugees have arrived in the provincial capital since last year, representing around 15 percent of its population. That influx has affected housing, health and education services in Brazil’s poorest state capital.

The U.N. center’s opening follows Wednesday’s announcement by the federal government that it would build five shelters to house 2,000 refugees in Boa Vista, doubling current capacity, and a shelter for 500 people in the border town of Pacaraima.

That came after Roraima’s governor controversially asked the Supreme Court on April 13 to shut the border crossing until orderly immigration procedures could be put in place, and for the federal government to step up assistance to the state.

In response, President Michel Temer said closing the border was “unthinkable”.

Many migrants have been sleeping in the city’s squares, but with the rainy season looming, the authorities have taken action to avoid a “collapse”, said Teresa Surita, Boa Vista’s mayor.

“We are closing the squares in order to move these people to shelters,” Surita said.

“The federal government arrived late, but arrived,” she said, referring to a provisional measure that saw $56 million allocated as assistance for Venezuelans, along with troops to patrol the border.

Federal citizen’s rights prosecutor Joao Akira said the battle between local, state and federal authorities over the largest influx of Venezuelan refugees in Brazil’s history had worsened matters.

“This situation came this far because of the blame game between governments,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

“The migration of Venezuelans to Brazil did not start today. But nobody was willing to take responsibility.”

Venezuelans have also fled to Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Panama, Argentina and Peru, while others have sought refugee status in the United States, Spain, Mexico and Costa Rica, according to the UNHCR.

Reporting by Karla Mendes, Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.

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