Foreign Policy

“Brazil has open arms to welcome refugees”


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Brazil is now the “largest host country of Syrian refugees in the Americas,” says Ambassador Simas Magalhães.

by Fernando Brigidi de Mello

Over the past few years, and specially in 2015, the world has been facing a devastating global refugee crisis. Violence and deprivation have forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, particularly in Syria, where the civil war is heading towards its sixth year. Recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Istanbul, and the episode of young women in Cologne who were groped and robbed on New Year’s Eve by men described as having “a North African or Arabic” appearance, have increased anxiety over absorbing scores of refugees. In the United States, expressing fear about terrorism, several Governors have taken action to prevent Syrian refugees from settling in their states. Anti-refugee sentiment has also been taking hold in many parts of Europe.

Brazil, on the other hand, has been quietly accepting more Syrian refugees than any other country in Latin America. Since 2013, it has issued over 8,000 special visas that give Syrians refugee status in the country. But despite its continental size, Brazil still takes very few refugees.

To learn more about Brazil’s refugee policy, Brazil Talk interviewed Ambassador Fernando Simas Magalhães, Undersecretary for Political Affairs at the Brazilian Ministry of External Relations. We asked him about the current international crisis, and how the country is preparing to host more refugees and migrants.


The world is going through a serious migration and refugee crisis. Do you think we face the possibility of a new xenophobic wave?

Just like there are records of xenophobic demonstrations in many locations, there are several reports of demonstrations of solidarity towards refugees and migrants around the world. It is the authorities’ responsibility to monitor these developments and take action to reject and combat xenophobia and discrimination.

The Justice Department, which has primary jurisdiction over the subject in Brazil, recently launched an awareness campaign regarding the matter, drawing attention to the fact that the vast majority of Brazilians descend from migrants. Brazil has also called attention to this issue consistently, in the context of multilateral discussions on the management of migration flows and on the refuge issue.

What is the position of the Brazilian government regarding the refugees and migrants from African countries and Syria?

As stated by President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil has its arms open to welcome refugees who wish to live and work in our territory. We keep, for example, since September 2013, a specific policy focused on the admission of people affected by the conflict in Syria, which has allowed the formal recognition of 2,200 refugees from the country in Brazil. With this number, we are now the largest host country of Syrian refugees in the Americas.

Regarding the African refugees, protection of our tradition is older. Even in the 1990s, we received a large number of Angolans fleeing the civil war in their country. More recently, we have welcomed a considerable amount of people from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is the fourth largest group of refugees recognized by our National Committee for Refugees (CONARE).

What is the assessment of Brazil on the political mediation carried out by the UN in relation to the refugee crisis in Syria?

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has played a crucial role in fighting the crisis. The High Commissioner António Guterres, who will leave his post at the end of 2015 [Guterres was replaced by Filippo Grande], has been widely praised for his ability to lead this agency, specially in times of such great difficulties and challenges.

Other UN agencies and international organizations have also contributed, within their mandates, to address the challenges that sometimes arise. Overcoming the crisis, however, must not only depend on international institutions: it is the State member’s responsibility to play a role in the search for solutions.

How does the government see the position of countries that are restricting refugee access? And regarding those countries that are implementing discriminatory policies towards refugees? Is Brazil prepared logistically in terms of offering public services to receive refugees? What rights are guaranteed and what services are offered?

Refugees in Brazil, as well as other foreigners, have guaranteed access to public services such as health and education. A very small proportion of refugees in our population (about 9000 refugees in a total population of about 200 million people) indicates no significant additional pressure on the availability of these services. Nevertheless, the matter is being monitored by the authorities to extend the conditions and guarantees of adaptation and integration to the reality in Brazil.

We have talked to NGOs in São Paulo who criticized the lack of structure offered by the government (in all three levels) to refugees, and the lack of information passed on to the society about the issue. What is your opinion?

It’s understandable, despite efforts made, that Brazil does not yet have the same structure to accommodate as those maintained by developed countries. However, we have started acting to improve our capacity to support newcomers and facilitate their integration, so we can keep up with the continued growth of the refugee population in Brazil, including the teaching of Portuguese.

CONARE has sought, for example, to increase its coordination with other federal entities on the issue of integration of refugees into the Brazilian society. In a federal country with continental proportions, the harmony between the federal government and state and local partners is crucial – specially regarding  the places in which the number of refugees is more expressive, like the city of São Paulo.

Moreover, CONARE has studied other ways to strengthen the network to host refugees in Brazil. The possibility of seeking private partners, for example, has been the subject of dialogue with other countries that have projects along these lines, like Canada.

A factor that hinders social integration for refugees is the delay in the analysis of refuge requests. Today, some 12,000 requests for refugee status are pending evaluation by CONARE. How does the Government intend to deal with this demand, which only tends to increase?

The number of asylum applications in Brazil increased more than 20 times in recent years; it went from 566 cases recorded in 2010 to more than 12 thousand in 2014. The CONARE, of course, will continue to adapt to handle this increase in demand for their services. The cases with a pending decision are a direct result of this recent development.

Moreover, there are ongoing adjustment measures to reverse the situation. CONARE’s services are being expanded, with new, decentralized units opening in cities with significant numbers of refugees, such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte. The increased operational capacity is expected to allow the normalization of the case analysis flow and, on a second step, considerably reduce waiting times for decisions on asylum claims.


Fernando Brigidi de Mello is a Master of Public Administration Candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Columbia University.