Response to migratory flows and the social inclusion of Haitian immigrants in Brazil

Case Overview

This case study examines the first-ever program implemented in Brazil to receive migrants from a humanitarian crisis. The humanitarian crisis in question worsened in 2010, in the wake of an earthquake that hit Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince. Until 2007, Brazil had been responsible for the peacekeeping troops deployed to stabilize the Caribbean country. In 2011, the number of Haitian people crossing the border into Brazil started to rise. Traditionally very low, the inflow numbers quickly escalated to dozens, then hundreds, and finally thousands of incoming migrants.

Prior to the incidents discussed in this case study, there was no public policy in place to receive and assist massive waves of immigrants coming into Brazil. For decades, the legislation had been restrictive and focused on compulsory removal of individuals from the country who were deemed undesirable by the authoritarian regime that governed Brazil until the mid-1980s. This issue garnered little visibility after the country returned to democracy, resulting in a legal framework that fell short of providing the Government with the proper tools to promote social inclusion, thus curbing migratory flows to one of the lowest immigrant ratios (as compared to the total population) in the world—approximately 0.5 percent.

As immigration from Haiti intensified, the issue gained visibility and laid bare the institutional limitations of the national and local governments in providing a swift and efficient response, both in terms of migration documentation and in specific inclusion policies, such as Portuguese language instruction and assistance.

The policies and discourses arising from the arrival of Haitian nationals have taken the discussion on how to update migratory laws and institutions in new directions within governmental, non-governmental, and international organizations.


After a period of internal debate and close monitoring of media coverage, the Federal Government reiterated its intent to provide all possible pathways to document and include Haitian migrants in Brazilian society. As such, the government was inclined to reconcile the expansion of the visa program with international cooperation efforts and internal policies. This was implemented at three different points along the migratory circuits.

  1. In Port-au-Prince, consular work was reinforced through assistance by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which culminated in a cooperation project to set up a Visa Center to better manage waiting times and to provide support to visa candidates wishing to go to Brazil. The visa issuance capacity of the Brazilian embassy in Port-au-Prince was also increased, from 800 visas issued per month (thus far) to peaks of up to 2,500 visas on certain months.
  2. The second stage involved neighboring countries traversed by migrants in transit to Brazil; the MRE convinced countries in Central and South America often crossed by Haitian migrants en route to Brazil to instruct border agents to step up surveillance measures to curb informal networks attempting to profit from these routes.
  3. The third stage was a deep structuring of reception services and programs in Brazil, not just for Haitians, but for all groups of migrants and refugees. This joint structure was useful in preparing Brazilian services for other migratory flows and in making sure the same treatment is dispensed to all migrant groups; the National Committee for Refugees was also reinforced.

Development Challenge

The Brazilian government and society faced the challenge of integrating a growing contingent of immigrants into the country, which required a strategy to receive and socially include immigrants, while respecting human rights and promoting the well-being of immigrants and Brazilians alike.

Delivery Challenges

The legal framework at the time was based on laws that were highly restrictive in terms of documentation and access to rights. In essence, it viewed immigrants as threats to national security and did not provide for the means to document a large inflow of immigrants as part of a humanitarian effort. The process of issuing immigrant documentation was bureaucratic, complex, and difficult to extend to large groups of people.

States and municipalities that received large numbers of immigrants lacked the funds to pay for public shelters, and the Federal Government had no funding schemes at the national level to handle the scale of the situation. Many of the Haitian nationals spoke only Haitian Creole, while others also spoke French. French and Creole are not languages used by professionals and civil servants in Brazil.

Language and cultural barriers became additional obstacles to public policy access, as well as significant delivery challenges when it came to implementing national policies aimed at this population.

Lessons Learned

Migration must be seen as a permanent and natural social phenomenon and, as such, should not be addressed in a single dimension. Especially during emergencies/calamities, solutions must lead to a sustainable and broad offer of services and rights and must expedite the process of achieving social autonomy for migrants. This case study has shown that immigrants can, indeed, be integrated into the social protection network and into society as a whole, rather than be marginalized by it. This requires policies and discourses capable of fostering inclusion and discouraging xenophobia and restrictive discourses.

There are initial levels of inequalities, even among the poorest, that act as poverty traps, with groups so vulnerable that they are unable to tap into the social protection network designed by the government specifically for them.

The issue of migrant vulnerability, especially in the case of immigrants living in poverty, is the object of extensive analysis and debate in literature. Factors inherent to each migrant’s life trajectory and concrete elements from their new surroundings may limit or increase their likelihood of achieving social inclusion and autonomy.

The case study underscores the importance of striking a balance between different sets of actions with distinct scopes. Investments in specific initiatives for this population are important because they help migrants acquire new skills and overcome personal, social and labor inequalities. The country must also strive to remove barriers to universal public services, stimulate the use of existing infrastructure and actively prevent any type of segregation between migrants and the local population; everyone should feel equally included in public spaces and services, and in terms of citizenship.