Nearly 300 Haitians fleeing the poverty of their earthquake-ravaged homeland have been stuck for a month in the Peruvian Amazon, where a gate to what they saw as a better life in Brazil has abruptly closed.
Mostly educated and in their 20s, they have taken refuge in a stuffy church in the Peruvian border town of Inapari since Brazil stationed federal police along the border early last month to stop a wave of illegal immigration.
The 273 Haitians in Inapari sold all their belongings and paid big fees to unscrupulous travel agents to fly to Peru through Panama or Ecuador. They planned to cross overland into Brazil, where a growing economy has attracted about 4,500 desperate Haitians since the earthquake two years ago — only to find that the border was closed when they arrived.
“We don’t have money and we are so far from Haiti ... we just ask Brazil to let us in,” said Joniel Clervil, 22, speaking in the English he learned in university before the January 2010 disaster ended his studies.
Having run out of cash, the group is relying on donations of rice and beans from the Brazilian border town of Assis Brasil. It is not clear if they will eventually be able to stay in Brazil or Peru, or be deported.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, in an attempt to manage the influx and discourage “coyotes” who take advantage of the immigrants, said during a visit to Haiti on Feb. 1 that her country would award 100 humanitarian visas per month in Port-au-Prince in the next five years, while tightening border security.
Brazil also has said it would give humanitarian visas to all Haitians already in Brazil, but that future migrants would be turned back at the border unless they had obtained proper visas before leaving Haiti.
Peruvian President Ollanta Humala has tried to help shut down what the governments regards as a human trafficking route by signing a decree last month requiring Haitians to obtain a tourist visa before entering Peru.
The Haitians stuck in Peru left home before the changes took effect and they are now in bureaucratic limbo. The governments say they will hold a meeting next week where they could decide the Haitians’ fate.
Brazil has Latin America’s largest economy and it now faces a very “First World” problem as a place that draws immigrants looking for work. It is increasingly viewed as an alternative to the US, which has stepped up deportations of undocumented immigrants during the worst economic downturn since World War II.
Rene Salizar, a Peruvian priest, said Brazil’s clampdown was inevitable. He said there has been a constant stream of Haitians at the border since a magnitude 7.0 earthquake killed 300,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless in Haiti two years ago.
“I saw this coming more than a year ago. Groups of between five and 20 were arriving daily,” said Salizar, who has arranged for the Haitians to stay in the town’s church and his house.
Brazil’s ties to the poorest country in the Americas grew after it led a UN peacekeeping mission to Haiti as part of a broader push to assert itself as a global leader.
“Brazil has a commitment to help the Haitian people and their country ... this includes those Haitians who want to come work in Brazil — so long as it’s within a limit that can be absorbed by the labor market,” Brazilian Ambassador to Peru Carlos Alfredo Lazary Teixeira said.