Haiti’s quake refugees brave sea and uncertainty for new life in Amazon

Guardian UK: Haitians fleeing 2010 earthquake chaos are enduring long journeys and border-town limbo for a fresh start in BrazilEach night they gather on Brazil Avenue under the amber glow of street lamps. Perched on the wall of a convenience store they talk politics, crack jokes, and sing along to mobile phone music from home. As darkness envelops Iñapari, a riverside border town in the Peruvian Amazon, the sound of French Creole and Haitian Compas songs fills the air.

“We have come here in search of a better life,” said Baptiste Suppler, a 29-year-old from Haiti‘s fourth-largest city, Gonaïves.

Suppler is one in a wave of Haitian migrants determined to build a new life in the Brazilian Amazon.

He pointed across the river Acre, separating Peru‘s Iñapari from the Brazilian border town of Assis Brasil, representing the last hurdle towards a fresh start in South America’s largest and wealthiest nation. “Our objective is to reach Brazil,” he added.

According to the Brazilian authorities at least 1,500 Haitians have entered the Amazon region since a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated their country on 12 January 2010, killing about 200,000.

After a gruelling, month-long journey via the Dominican Republic, Panama, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and sometimes Colombia, Haitian migrants arrive at remote border towns like Iñapari and wait for the chance to cross into the Brazilian Amazon. Once there many try to find construction jobs on Amazonian infrastructure projects, such as the Santo Antonio and Jirau hydroelectric dams. “I chose Brazil, and many Haitians choose Brazil, because in 2014 there will be a World Cup,” said Esdras Hector, who left Haiti on 11 March and made it to the Brazilian Amazon on 15 April after a four-week pilgrimage by plane, bus and on foot. “A lot of Haitians know Brazil will need a lot of workers to work during this time.”

Brazilian authorities have been caught off guard by the sudden influx of Haitians. Unsure how to classify the migrants, federal police officials received orders to refuse entry to new arrivals while a solution was sought, they said. For now, the Brazilian border was closed, theoretically at least.

But for the Haitians stranded in Iñapari, many heavily in debt, turning back is not an option. Some bide their time, hoping the border will reopen in a few months; others have already begun hiring coyotes (people smugglers) to guide them on a perilous illegal trek through the jungle into Brazil.

“They won’t give up … they are just one step away from realising their dreams,” said Maria Cardozo Mouzully, 49, who owns Hospedaje Iñapari, a riverside guesthouse on the Peruvian side of the border that now houses many Haitians. In the absence of support from the local government, Mouzully ceded many of her hotel rooms and her kitchen to Haitian migrants left in limbo by the decision to seal the border. “What are we supposed to do? Kill them? Watch them starve to death outside our front door?”

Go about 71 miles east from Iñapari and you reach Epitaciolândia, a small Brazilian town currently home to about 160 Haitian migrants who reached Brazil before the border closed. Among the mostly male group are university graduates, bricklayers, electricians and preachers, all sleeping on the floor of a gymnasium while waiting for papers letting them stay legally and work. To fill the time they play cards, read the Bible and do odd jobs for ranchers.

“[The] disaster destroyed my country,” said Esdras Hector, 27, who hoped to learn Portuguese to land a job with the UN. “I know if I use my brain in Brazil I will realise my dream to help my family.”

But for many, attempting to build a new life in Brazil has come at great personal cost.

Silvaine Doris, a 46-year-old shampoo seller, who lost her brother and sister in the earthquake, left her daughter aged seven and 11-year-old son behind in Port-au-Prince in the care of a niece.

“As soon as I bought my ticket … I started to cry,” she said.

These days her home is the Pousada Sao Jose, a guesthouse in Brasiléia, an Amazonian town near Brazil’s border with Bolivia and Peru. “I’ve come here because of the economic problem. We don’t have anything – no jobs. All we could do was come here in search of a better future.”

Haitians represent the largest portion of this new wave of Amazon migrants, but over five days in the region, four men from Bangladesh, one from Liberia and one from Nigeria talked to the Guardian. Pakistani and Tanzanian migrants are also said to have arrived.

Peter John Prince, 27, from Liberia, said he was living in Ivory Coast until some months ago when his brother, owner of a sportswear shop, was killed by rebels. “I am a refugee … I had to get away because I don’t want to die.”

Beside him stood Frank Jideofor, 23, from Nigeria’s oil-rich Bayelsa state. His left arm was amputated after he was shot by the same men who murdered his father, a government official. Why had he come to Brazil? “For the life-safe. They burnt our house, they shot me … because my father didn’t support them.”

Back on Brazil Avenue, Suppler and his fellow Haitian travellers were mulling over the options. “Our situation is difficult. For now, the border is closed.” What would he do? “I will wait.” How long for? He crossed his fingers and looked towards the sky. “Persévérance.”

Chasing the dream

Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries migrant workers flocked to South America chasing the “Brazilian dream”.

Foreign workers were widely seen as a key ingredient for economic growth, particularly after Brazil abolished slavery in 1888.

Germans were among the first to arrive, colonising large areas of southern Brazil from the 1820s onwards. In some corners of Brazil’s deep south, German is still spoken as a first language.

Between the mid-1870s and 1920 as many as 1.5 million Italian immigrants touched down in south and south-east Brazil. Today there are about 25 million Brazilians of Italian descent.

Between 1908 and the 1960s up to 250,000 Japanese immigrants arrived, many fleeing rural poverty.

The majority set sail for Sao Paulo and went to work in the region’s coffee plantations; others headed for the Amazon.

Today Brazil is said to house the largest Japanese population outside Japan. Last year’s census counted at least 2 million Brazilians of Asian descent.


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