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Amid Construction Boom, Migrants Flow Into Brazil

Construction is underway on the Itaquerao stadium in Sao Paulo, shown here June 12. The stadium will be the venue for the opening ceremony and game of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and many migrants are among the laborers working on the project.
Sebastiao Moreira
Construction is underway on the Itaquerao stadium in Sao Paulo, shown here June 12. The stadium will be the venue for the opening ceremony and game of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and many migrants are among the laborers working on the project.

Brazil is in the midst of a building boom as it constructs stadiums across the country in preparation for the World Cup it will host next year. In Sao Paulo, hundreds of workers are building a massive arena that will take many more months to complete.

But not all of the workers are Brazilian.

Marie Eveline Melous, 26, arrived from Haiti just a few months ago because life was so difficult, especially after the huge earthquake in 2010. "It's hard to find work. I came to Brazil to help my situation," she says.

She's now working in the administration department at the stadium construction site, and her Haitian husband works here as a welder.

They are among the lucky ones — they have visas and jobs. But across town there are many more who are struggling to survive.

There are more than 100 Haitians clustered in a dark waiting room at Our Lady of Peace Church in downtown Sao Paulo. They are the newest group of undocumented migrants to come flooding into Brazil.

The Rev. Paulo Parise, who runs the mission, says Brazil has entered a new phase. "Brazil used to export its people overseas, but now we are attracting migrants," he says.

An Emerging Issue

The number of undocumented migrants here is still tiny compared with countries like the U.S., where there are millions of illegal immigrants. Such immigrants make up less than 1 percent of the Brazilian population.

But the number is growing and advocates say Brazil doesn't know how to cope.

In April, a Brazilian state on the Bolivian border declared a state of emergency after only a few thousand Haitians made their way into the country.

Parisa says that's because Brazil doesn't have the infrastructure to actually deal with large influxes of migrants. "It's not enough to allow people to enter and give them humanitarian visas. They need a place to stay, somewhere to get food, health care and work," he says. "In Brazil, the church or civil society take on those tasks. But it's no longer enough."

In an interview with NPR, National Justice Secretary Paulo Abrao said there are three reasons why more people want to immigrate to Brazil.

"First, our economy has grown and millions have moved into the middle class," he said. "There is record employment in Brazil these days and an economic crisis in other parts of the world."

He also noted that Brazil has also gained international visibility in advance of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

And third, he said, "We have a tradition of hospitality. We are a country built on migration."

Brazil's immigration policies are considered fairly generous. All the Haitians who have made it to Brazil have been allowed to stay and have been given humanitarian visas.

Hundreds of thousands of other migrants from South America are also allowed to work here under regional agreements.

An Ugly Underbelly

Of course, not all is perfect. Over the past two weeks, protests have broken out all over Brazil against the high cost of living here and the massive expenditure on the World Cup stadiums, among a host of other grievances.

Brazil is also having to deal with the ugly side of immigration.

Franco Bergara, who is from Bolivia, is on the street looking for work. He talks about how many Bolivians are lured to Brazil and forced to work in sweatshops. The Bolivian workers are forced to hand over their identification documents, he says, and then they are made to work all day but are not paid.

Recently the government closed down a number of these factories, some of which were making clothes for international brands like Gap and Zara.

Many of the migrants are from Bolivia, but they are certainly not the only ones.

Not long ago, Brazilian police busted a human trafficking ring that was illegally bringing in workers from Bangladesh, according to authorities.

Back at Our Lady of Peace Church, a Haitian migrant who doesn't want his name used says he has six siblings in the U.S. However, he says, he decided to come to Brazil because he heard it was easier to get documents and work.

But it's been almost two months now and he and his wife haven't found jobs. "It's not easy," he says, "but we are here now to stay."

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Lulu Garcia-Navarro
Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.