22 January 2016

In 2013, in response to the Syrian war, Brazil was the first country in the Americas to announce the start of a humanitarian visa programme: under the regulation, Brazilian embassies in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey issued visas for Syrians and people of other nationalities affected by the Syrian conflict, allowing them to travel safely to Brazil and apply for asylum there.

The programme, originally scheduled to last for two years, has recently been extended until 2017. By August 2015, 2,077 Syrians had been welcomed under this programme, making Syrians the largest group of refugees in the country. Asylum seekers have access to the health and education systems and are allowed to work while their applications are being considered.

A similar visa mechanism is also available for Haitians; a programme more limited in numbers as the Brazilian embassy in Port-au-Prince only issues around 100 visas per month, even though the demand is higher. The humanitarian visa programme for Haitians was born out of a desire to undermine smuggling and trafficking rings, which are the cause of expensive and extremely dangerous irregular journeys to reach Brazil.

The number of refugees hosted by Brazil is still relatively low, with around 8,000 recognised refugees as of 2015, the highest number on record for the country. It is also estimated that a much larger number of Syrians have entered the country without applying for asylum. The existing population in Brazil, of those with Syrian origin, numbers approximately three million, being a large community that helps in the integration of refugees.

Humanitarian visas constitute one of the safe and legal channels that UNHCR and many NGOs have been calling for, especially in light of the current humanitarian crisis in Europe. The Brazilian example shows that this is not only possible, but also easily accomplishable.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 22 January 2016. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.