Brazilian Immigration Policy Faces New Challenges

Whereas the subject has long been debated in Europe and the USA, the issue of immigration has only recently gained prominence in Brazil. Known until recently as a country of emigrants, this new reality which the country has been experiencing in recent years poses a series of new challenges, with clear impacts on the economy, foreign policy and the law, for which both Brazilian society and government must urgently prepare themselves if predictions of Brazil's rise on the global scene become reality.

The Brazil of immigrants and emigrants
Like all the European ex-colonies in America, Brazil has received various waves of immigration from many parts of the world. The first began with the Portuguese occupation of Brazilian territory in the XIV century, followed by the importation of slave workers from Africa and after the abolition of slavery in 1888, the substitution of the African workforce with European immigrants. Since then, Brazilian society has changed radically as a result of these immigration flows, giving each state its own ethnic and cultural characteristics.

Celebration of Carnaval in Vila Maria, São Paulo, 2008. Photo by Leo Caobelli on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Vila Maria, São Paulo, 2008. Photo by Leo Caobelli on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

As for the first Brazilian emigrants, they initially migrated to neighbouring countries, but it did not take long for them to reach the USA, Europe and Japan. Amongst the reasons for leaving the country were the poor prospects for social ascension, unemployment and rampant inflation which affected Brazil in the 1980s. At the same time, there was the existence of established social networks which facilitated the settlement of these emigrants in countries such as Japan (where the dekasegis settled) and Portugal. The number of Brazilians seeking better living conditions abroad has increased exponentially since that time and today they total around 3 million, including both regular and irregular migrants.

The current situation: the return of Brazilians
With the current economic crisis, many of these emigrants are now returning to Brazil, and particularly to the states of São Paulo, Paraná and Minas Gerais. The blog Geo-Conceição [pt] presents some interesting statistics in relation to these immigrants:

(…) 65% dos imigrantes são, na verdade, brasileiros que retornaram ao país. São os chamados “imigrantes internacionais de retorno”. Em 2000, os brasileiros que voltavam para casa representavam 61% do total de imigrantes.
O maior número de brasileiros retorna principalmente dos Estados Unidos, Japão, Portugal, Espanha, Paraguai e Bolívia. Alguns dados sobre a imigração de retorno chamam atenção, como o fato de 84,2% dos imigrantes dos Estados Unidos serem de brasileiros voltando ao país. No caso do Japão, esse percentual chega a 89,1% e no de Portugal, a 77%.

(…) 65% of immigrants are, in reality, Brazilians returning to the country. They are the so-called “international return immigrants”. In 2000, Brazilians returning home represented 61% of the total immigrant population.
The majority of Brazilians return primarily from the United States, Japan, Portugal, Spain, Paraguay and Bolivia. Some of the data on return migration is surprising, such as the fact that 84.2% of immigrants from the United States are Brazilians returning to the country. In the case of Japan, this proportion reaches 89.1% and where Portugal is concerned, 77%.

Some sectors of Brazilian society are attentive to this return movement. For example, the Brazilian Support Service for Micro and Small Businesses (SEBRAE) has said that it has signed an agreement [pt] with the MRE (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) to establish a partnership to assist Brazilians who are returning to the country:

O Sebrae em Minas Gerais e o Itamaraty [MRE] firmaram nesta sexta-feira (23) uma parceria de auxílio a brasileiros que vivem no exterior e pretendam abrir e gerir um negócio próprio quando retornarem ao Brasil. Com a atual crise econômica nos Estados Unidos e em países da Europa, a expectativa é de que aproximadamente 500 mil dos cerca de 3 milhões de emigrantes retornem ao país dispostos a tocarem seus próprios empreendimentos.

The SEBRAE in Minas Gerais and the Itamaraty (MRE) signed this Friday (23rd) a partnership to offer support to Brazilians who live abroad and intend to open and run their own business when they return to Brazil. With the current economic crisis in the United States and in European countries, the expectation is that approximately 500,000 of the around 3 million emigrants will return to the country ready to start up their own enterprises.

In a recent declaration [pt], minister Moreira Franco of the Secretariat of Strategic Affairs of the Presidency of the Republic (SAE), stated that laws on immigration are anachronistic and hinder the absorption of skilled workers who lack opportunities in their countries of origin.

É claro, conforme destacou Moreira Franco, que a educação é a melhor ferramenta para o País alcançar o desenvolvimento necessário. Mas esse é um caminho mais demorado. Por isso, ele salientou a importância de o Brasil aproveitar este momento de grande oferta no cenário internacional.

It is clear, as Moreira Franco emphasised, that education is the best tool in order for the country to reach the required level of development. But this is a slower path. That is why he stressed how important it is for Brazil to make the most of this moment of strong supply [of skilled workers] on the international scene.

The minister's statement is paradoxical, as one of the long-standing demands of the lower classes in Brazilian society has been precisely better access to education. Consistently present among these demands has been the granting of scholarships to students from poor backgrounds, the valorisation of the teaching profession through clear career plans as well as decent pay and cheaper books.

The list is long, and taken together with what has been said previously, shows the extent to which Brazil has wasted its own population. The minister considers that urgent alterations of the laws which govern work visas for foreigners and special programmes for their integration in a new country – including learning the Portuguese language – would not be necessary if a plan was formulated to facilitate foreigners’ return while simultaneously increasing investment in education for young people in Brazil.

Celebration of Oktoberfest by the German community in Rio Grande do Sul. Photo by Pedro Rocha on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Celebration of Oktoberfest by the German community in Rio Grande do Sul. Photo by Pedro Rocha on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

By entering into this race for foreign brains, Brazil comes to compete with countries like Australia and Canada, especially Quebec [fr], which have programmes designed to attract highly-skilled immigrants to cover the deficit caused by their ageing populations. Their case is quite different to that of Brazil, which still has a relatively young and numerous population of around 200 million, and without large demographic gaps as in these countries, besides the 3 million emigrants living abroad who wish to return to their country.

Professor of International Relations Oliver Stuenkel of the Fundação Getúlio Vargas ponders [pt] what scenario the future will bring:

O número crescente de pessoas do exterior em busca de emprego mudará a forma como o Brasil se relaciona com estrangeiros. Visitantes do exterior são bem quistos no Brasil, pois são poucos, ricos e não costumam ficar por muito tempo. No futuro, os imigrantes virão em maiores números, serão relativamente pobres, e terão a intenção de se instalar no Brasil. […] Embora possa levar décadas para que imigração ao Brasil chegue às proporções conhecidas na Europa, resta a ver quão bem o Brasil lidaria com uma nova onda de imigração, e os desafios que a acompanham.

The rising number of people from abroad looking for work will change the way in which Brazil relates to foreigners. Visitors from abroad are well-loved in Brazil, as they are few in number, rich and do not usually stay for long. In the future, immigrants will come in greater numbers, they will be relatively poor, and they will intend to settle in Brazil. […] Although it may take several decades for immigration to Brazil to reach levels seen in Europe, it remains to be seen how well Brazil will manage a new wave of immigration, and the accompanying challenges.

One possible scenario is that Brazil will replicate the same erroneous policies which prompted those 3 million Brazilians to emigrate: concentrating income in the hands of sections of society which are uncommitted to social justice. Another scenario is that the country will have learnt the lesson of the “years of lead” [the most repressive period of the military dictatorship in Brazil, from 1968 to 1974] and will pay attention to the debt which it owes both to those Brazilians who have emigrated and to those who remain in Brazil, above all with regards to access to education, and consequently, the right to decent work.


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