Uprooted by Brazil floods, foreign refugees ‘start all over again’

By Thomson Reuters May 17, 2024 | 6:06 AM

By Lisandra Paraguassu

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Haitians and Venezuelans who found refuge in southern Brazil after escaping hunger, violence and natural disasters are being forced once more to rebuild lives now wrecked by record flooding in Rio Grande do Sul state.

Reginald Descilong left Haiti after he lost family and friends in the devastating 2010 earthquake. He got to Brazil three years later, crossing Central America on foot and by bus. Today, the 39-year-old and his wife and three daughters are in a public shelter in the inundated state capital Porto Alegre.

“It seems that disaster is always chasing us. I got here but the problems don’t stop. We lost everything in our home underwater, and we can’t even get back there by boat,” he said.

“I don’t know where I’m going now. We have to start all over again,” he told Reuters.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has data on roughly 46,000 refugees living in the state, including 29,000 Venezuelans and 12,000 Haitians.

Rio Grande do Sul was among the top three states to receive refugees in a federal humanitarian program that relocated migrants fleeing Venezuela on Brazil’s northern border.

Many, like Descilong, got steady jobs with full benefits. Over 14,000 refugees found formal employment in Rio Grande do Sul from 2011 to 2019, more than any other state, according to data from Brazil’s Justice Ministry.

The most common home for the state’s refugees has been in the Sarandi neighborhood on the north side of Porto Alegre, which was the most ravaged by flooding after a dike collapsed.

More than 26,000 Sarandi residents with homes underwater are now in various shelters in the city. Many left everything behind as they escaped the rising floodwaters, including documents now lost forever, raising additional concerns for the immigrants.

Venezuelan Carina Gonzalez, 27, had to leave a backpack with her documents and those of her 11-year-old daughter when she fled her house in chest-deep water.

“My husband told me to let go of the backpack or my dog. I wasn’t going to leave my dog, so I let go of the backpack with my documents,” Gonzalez recalled. “We are foreigners and we can’t do anything without a document,” she added.

“Many people have lost the documents they had, their migration papers, their provisional ID that will have to be reissued so they do not remain undocumented in Brazil,” said UNHCR official Silvia Sander.

Carina and her husband Xavier said their jobs are safe, for now, but they are worried about getting to work in a city where downtown streets are still under water.

They crossed into Brazil in 2018, fleeing political tensions and economic crisis in neighboring Venezuela. The floods have thrust them into upheaval again.

“We don’t even know where we are going. We have no destination right now,” said Xavier.

(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Brad Haynes and Josie Kao)