Blog post written by Aryadne Waldely, a Fulbright Scholar at the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility of The New School, in New York City, and a PhD candidate at the Law School of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Previously, Aryadne has worked for the Protection Unit of the UNHCR in Brazil after several years working as a lawyer, consultant and researcher for different non-profit organizations, such as ActionAid, Caritas and Earth Child Institute.

On December 5, 2019, Brazil’s National Refugee Committee (CONARE) recognized as refugees 21,432 Venezuelans who left their country of origin due to the humanitarian crisis. This is a milestone. Those who closely follow the agenda of the refugee population in Brazil will see it as a very exciting moment. This is a significant act in the current scenario of the country, the region and the entire globe. The decision has already been highlighted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for its positive impact.

Some points to help understand the significance of this event are the following:


Numerically, this is the largest collective recognition of refugees in the entire history of Brazil. In all, there are now, counting these deferrals, just over 30,000 refugees in Brazil. In one day, CONARE has recognized almost double of the total refugee status recognition in more than twenty years. Of course, 21,000 is not enough compared to the 4 million people who have left Venezuela in the last five years, nor does it solve the plight of more than 60 million people forcibly displaced in the world. But, proportionally, 21,000 for Brazil is both historic and unimaginable. 21,000 for Venezuela’s situation is equally remarkable and pioneering.


Currently around the world, around 750,000 Venezuelans have requested asylum in the last five years. Brazil is the country that receives the second highest number of these requests. As of September 2019, Brazilian authorities registered more than 120,000 asylum applicants from Venezuela. Despite often being a decision that occurs years after a crisis begins, in a single act, 18% of Venezuelans who requested international protection in Brazil have now been granted this status. It is an unprecedented act in the world that bears witness to the largest crisis of forced cross-border displacement in the Americas.


The credibility given to these 21,000 stories was made possible only by a change of understanding on the grounds of the asylum requests and a shift in their corresponding analysis. It was activated through Item III of Article 9 of Law 9,474 / 97, which regulates the protection of refugees in the country. This means that the situation of “serious and generalized human rights violation” was recognized, a definition inspired by the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, which has never been applied on this scale in Latin America and Brazil, despite being foreseen in most national laws. CONARE had already used this plea last July to recognize Venezuelans, but for less than 200 cases. Applying this legal provision is rarely used because of the concern that it sets a precedent for future cases to highlight this innovative decision.


Procedure! Traditionally, countries receiving refugees without massive border flows, including Brazil before the Venezuelan situation, conduct individual analysis of asylum applications. This means that each person who has sought protection goes through a meticulous and often time-consuming process of analyzing their individual history (if there is such demarcation in life stories) and their credibility. The collective decision of these 21,000 occurred by the application of the so-called “prima facie” recognition, which provides simplification of analysis and dispenses personal interview.


This occurred due to a public and institutional recognition of the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela after intense narrative disputes over what happens in this country, which is not at all negligible in the current political landscape of the region. Recognizing so many people as refugees also means recognition by the Brazilian State, in the role of CONARE, about the different forms of life destruction that prevail in the neighboring country. Since late 2014, Venezuelans began to arrive in Brazil with a denouncing desire to make public knowledge about all the hunger, violence, avoidable disease and deaths, persecution, human rights violations, etc. And they began to claim, through the asylum requests, the recognition of the Brazilian state to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.


All these lives now, by a single state act – at the same time so simple and highly complex-, may have greater possibilities of protection to their lives in this place that is inventing a very shy, yet significant, Brazilian mode of reception and integration. This means that with refugee status they can more easily have access to various acts that make up citizen life by what equates them to Brazilians: employment, education, food, health, leisure. In addition, they are guaranteed rights by what differentiates them in their status as refugees outside their country of nationality, as regards their distinctive demands in terms of documentation, language, culture, and the like.


This collective recognition in this dimension paves a way for promising precedents. There are still tens of thousands asylum seekers from Venezuela waiting for the decision about their requests and there is no guarantee that CONARE will keep making collective decision like this one. However, the proposal announced by the government is to adopt a simplified analysis procedure in cases of people affected by the situation in Venezuela from now on. There is never certainty about future steps or any legal certainty, but there is a sign that cases have similar treatment. This in itself is very encouraging for the potential of expanding the rights of Venezuelans, as well as for other refugees in Brazil.


Given this massive recognition, the asylum request in Brazil finally becomes a feasible legal pathway. Prior to this landmark decision, less than 300 people who have fled Venezuela were granted refugee status since the crisis began. All the others 120,000 asylum requests were hold on a backlog for years without any response, implicating that many applicants withdraw the refugee status determination process in order to apply for a temporary residence permit. The option for a temporary residence permit has become more attractive, as this route allows access to formal documentation in a few months. Hence, legally Venezuelans in Brazil had two main legal pathways (asylum application or temporary residence). However, although Venezuelans wanted the refugee status, the necessity to have a definitive document to work was pushing them for the residence permit, since they had not expectation to receive the recognition as refugees in a short time. Now that CONARE recognized thousands of Venezuelans as refugees. Finally, Venezuelans will now be able to fairly choose between seeking asylum – if they consider they need a protection status – or applying for temporary residence permit – if having a refugee status is not necessary for them-, without being held hostage by the need for a quick document that allows them to work.


This all happens after years of the many exchanges, debates, meetings, technical notes, studies, phone calls, lunches, and innumerable assemblages that have taken place within and around CONARE. There are several connections to the wider universe of human rights agenda and the formation of politics in and outside Brazil. CONARE is, by law, a collegiate body, including the participation of government, UNHCR and civil society. This composition offered a fertile network for the creation of interesting refugee protection politics. There are comings and goings, losses and wins on all sides (and members of CONARE), but somehow it has been possible to recognize 21,000 Venezuelans in one formal decision-making act.


The decision indicates a paradigm shift in the conduct of Brazilian policy to deal with the arrival of Venezuelans seeking protection. Previously, 92% of Venezuelan cases decided by CONARE were extinguished, filed or denied. There was little hope that the displacement of Venezuelans in Brazil would be managed by the prospect of refugee protection. Now, after the decision, most of the recognized refugees in Brazil were based on the definition brought by the Cartagena Declaration, whose main purpose is precisely to facilitate collective recognition due to human rights violations in the region.

Photograph by author

The previous omission of the Brazilian government regarding the recognition of refugee status was accompanied by a promotion of the possibility of temporary residence permit, which implied a directing of the flow out of the institutional universe of the refugee. We now have a relevant step in treating people who have fled Venezuela for a policy that, at least formally, is committed to protection.

In this sense, Brazil is a laboratory for regional and global refugee policies and, perhaps, several other human rights agendas. This important and widespread recognition of refugee status for people fleeing Venezuela intersects with another line of protection for these people in Brazil that has been in force since the beginning of 2018, which is “Operação Acolhida”. This is an initiative to operationalize emergency assistance for the reception of Venezuelan refugees and migrants who are most vulnerable. Together with the Armed Forces and other governmental institutions, UN agencies and civil society organizations play a fundamental role in enabling the humanitarian response in three main axes: border planning, shelter and assisted displacement.

The decision is, above all, a gesture that lives up to the tragedy experienced by this group of millions people who fled Venezuela. It also lives up to the result of the technical-political construction that has been produced in Brazil from the hard and cooperative work between actors from civil society organizations, the legal authorities, the UNHCR and government bodies. It is a collective intelligence woven and fed by reciprocal affectation. These are the joys of cooperation, as Gabriel Tarde said.

The event has not only positive effects. Besides legal issues that can be discussed, it is possible to assume that many Venezuelans were disappointed by the decision that didn’t granted asylum to everyone. But there are plenty of smiles and tears of relief from various Venezuelans. Well, the 220,000 Venezuelans who entered Brazil were able to resonate, in Deleuzian terms[1]. They were the protagonists of their right to have proper attention accordingly to their protection needs. It is the biopotence in operation, managing beautiful fruits.

C. L., a Venezuelan woman who since 2016 has been working hard to build a communitarian protection network in Brazil and to have recognized the situation in her country as a “serious and generalized human rights violation” reported her reaction:

Today when I saw the news I couldn’t stop crying, I felt it was the recognition of years of struggle and denunciation of human rights violations in Venezuela. Today I saw the work of ants rewarded, which we sometimes think is useless and we wanted to give up, but then we came back much more strongly. I thank those humanitarian workers who always believed in us. There are not enough words to express such gratitude.

Once again, the escape that people create helps us to encourage spirits to the possible breaches of democracy, freedom, and life we ​​can invent in a world so devastated by war, unproductive dispute, and moral accusations. For all these reasons, a joy overflows from this collective struggle waged above all by the Venezuelans who dared to flee and shared with us the hope of a greater life in a better world.

[1]See DELEUZE, Gilles & GUATTARI, Félix. Mil Platôs: capitalismo e esquizofrenia. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2011.

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