Of the some four million Syrians who have fled their country since 2011, the vast majority are residing in neighboring countries.
Europe has seen a large increase in the number of refugees arriving in search of safety.
However, thousands of miles from Syria and the Mediterranean, it might surprise many to know that Brazil has granted asylum to more Syrian refugees than Spain, Greece or Italy.
Figures released by the National Committee for Refugees (Conare in Portuguese), part of the Brazilian Ministry of Justice, show that 2077 Syrian refugees have been granted asylum in Brazil since the beginning of the war.
In the Americas, Brazil comes second only to Canada, which has welcomed 2374, and is way ahead of Latin American neighbors such as Argentina and Uruguay, which have granted asylum to 233 and 44 Syrian refugees respectively.
8,400 recognized refugees currently reside in Brazil, a figure which includes over 80 different nationalities. Nationalities with significant numbers of refugees in the country include Senegalese, Nigerian and Ghanaian.
Humanitarian visas for Syrians
The relatively large numbers of Syrian refugees in Brazil is due in part to a special humanitarian visa for Syrians, created by the Ministry of Justice in 2013.
Syrians who have been dislocated due to the war can use this visa to guarantee safe passage by airplane to Brazil in order to claim asylum on arrival.
An open letter signed by representatives of human rights groups in Brazil including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch urged the Ministry of Justice to renew the special visa arrangements when they expire at the end of September 2015.
Speaking to BBC Brasil, Andrés Ramirez, representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Brazil, spoke highly of the country’s stance on refugees. “Brazil has had an open door policy for Syrian refugees,” he said. “The numbers are still small, mostly due to our geographical location. But without a doubt ours is an example to be followed on a global scale.”
Another relatively unusual aspect of the process for asylum-seekers in Brazil is that they are allowed to work while their application is under consideration. In the United Kingdom, for example, refugees are not allowed to work and must rely on state handouts, which can be as low as £5 ($7.70) a day.
Asylum system under strain
The Brazilian Ministry of Justice recently admitted that the structure put in place to assess asylum requests has been overwhelmed in recent years, with 12,666 pending requests as of August 2015.
The asylum decision-making process has been decentralized, new consultants have been employed and Conare is also now being assisted by a thousand-strong bank of volunteers, assisting with research related to asylum requests and translation demands.
In a press release, Justice Secretary Beto Vasconcelos commented that “with more people working, we will decrease the time spent analyzing requests, regularizing the situation of these asylum seekers more quickly.”
The increased global interest in the European refugee crisis in recent months has also hit Brazil. Caritas Rio de Janeiro, one of several NGOs working with refugees in Brazil, reported a huge surge in interest via social media, stating that the number of people who ‘liked’ its Facebook page tripled in ten days.
As well as supporting and protecting refugees in Rio de Janeiro, the NGO aims to raise awareness about the difficulties and hardships refugees face in Brazil, especially in accessing the labor market and finding housing.
“Children die here too.”
However, after photos of the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi shocked the world and were widely shared in the Brazilian media, some have reacted with criticism, reminding people of the high levels of violence against children in Brazil.
For example, Brazilian children and young people are disproportionately victims of police violence, a fact which was recently highlighted in an Amnesty International report on the subject.
A well-known Brazilian cartoonist, Ribs, shared his drawing detailing this concern on 9 September, along with an explanation. “Children die here too.
Today Cristian Andrade, 12 years old, was shot and killed by the Military Police in Manguinhos favela.’ Andrade’s death the day before had received little press coverage.
Nonetheless, as European governments struggle to find solutions to the unfolding refugee crisis, Brazil’s track record on Syrian refugees could well be used as an example for future refugee policy in other countries.