Pedro M., 12, inside the housing unit where he lives with his sister Mariana, 13, at a UN shelter in Roraima in October 2019.
© 2019 César Muñoz Acebes
(São Paulo) – Brazilian authorities are failing to provide adequate protection for hundreds of unaccompanied Venezuelan children who are fleeing into Brazil, Human Rights Watch said today.
From May 1 through November 21, 2019, 529 unaccompanied Venezuelan children crossed the border into the Brazilian state of Roraima, according to the Brazilian Federal Public Defender’s Office, which interviewed these children at the border. Almost 90 percent of them are between ages 13 and 17. They had either traveled alone or with an adult who is not a relative or legal guardian. The total number is most likely higher, as some children may not stop at the border post where the public defenders conduct their interviews. No system exists to track and support unaccompanied children after their entry interview.
“The humanitarian emergency is driving children to flee Venezuela alone, many looking for food or health care,” said César Muñoz, senior Brazil researcher at Human Rights Watch. “While Brazilian authorities are making a great effort to accommodate hundreds of Venezuelans crossing daily into Brazil, they are failing to give these children the protection they desperately need.”
Some unaccompanied children end up living on the streets, where they may be particularly vulnerable to abuse or to recruitment by Brazilian criminal gangs, Human Rights Watch found. Without a legal guardian, they cannot enroll in school or get public health care, federal public defenders and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) told Human Rights Watch. Roraima’s child protection services, known as guardianship councils, used to place some unaccompanied children in state shelters, which can house up to 15 adolescent boys and 13 girls. In those cases, the shelter director acts as their guardian so they can go to school and obtain identification papers to access the public health system.
However, Roraima’s two government shelters for children ages 12 to 17 became so overcrowded that, on September 13, a state judge ordered them to stop accepting children.
Since then, the guardianship councils in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima, and Pacaraima, a border town, have sought judicial authorization to place some unaccompanied Venezuelan children in United Nations shelters for Venezuelan adults and families with children. The shelters were established as part of “Operation Welcome” (Operação Acolhida), an effort by the Brazilian federal government – supported by UN agencies and non-governmental organizations – to respond to the inflow of Venezuelans. But United Nations representatives told Human Rights Watch that the shelters lack the necessary services and support for unaccompanied children.
An administrator at a shelter that houses some of them said in October that the unaccompanied children there did not go to school because there was no adult to assume responsibility for taking them there and back.
On October 8, 2019, Jesús Alisandro Sarmerón Pérez, a 16-year-old boy who lived in a UN shelter in Boa Vista, was found choked to death on a nearby street. His body was left in a plastic bag with signs of torture. He had entered Brazil alone in June, stayed briefly in a state shelter, and then lived on the streets in Boa Vista. He was placed in an Operation Welcome shelter after the September 13 decision about children’s shelters, a UNICEF Emergency Child Protection Officer told Human Rights Watch. UN representatives believe that a criminal gang may have killed him. “Venezuelan adolescents are easy prey for recruitment by gangs,” the officer said.
UNICEF plans to open two temporary homes for 10 unaccompanied children each during December, and fund them for the first six months, under an agreement with the state and federal governments. But for the project to be sustainable Brazilian state and federal authorities need to take over the coordination of the project after the first stage and provide financial support, Human Rights Watch said. UNICEF would also like to temporarily place unaccompanied children with Venezuelan and Brazilian families. That requires Brazilian authorities to create a foster family program in Roraima and to commit funding to ensure sustainability.
In his September 13 ruling on the overcrowded shelters, the state judge gave the state of Roraima 10 days to present a plan to house unaccompanied Venezuelan children. In response, the Roraima state government drafted a plan that includes improvements for the shelters and the opening of the two temporary homes by UNICEF. The Roraima state government did not respond to several Human Rights Watch requests to discuss the issue.
The plan requested by the judge is crucial, but the care and protection of unaccompanied Venezuelan children should not be the sole responsibility of Roraima state, and it should go beyond just accommodation, Human Rights Watch said. Brazil’s federal government should work jointly with Roraima and municipal authorities, and federal and state justice officials, to establish a properly funded system to identify, track, and support unaccompanied Venezuelan children. This should be done in collaboration with UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations working in the area. They should also ensure these children have access to school, health care, and legal documentation.
For further information on Human Rights Watch findings, see below.
Stories of Three Unaccompanied Children
Luis P. (pseudonym), 17, left Venezuela in 2017 because of hunger and family abuse, and has not received adequate support and protection in Brazil.
When he was 15, Luis started working loading trucks in a street market in Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela, to earn money for food for him and his family, he told Human Rights Watch. There were days when he ate only once, rice with butter, or some sardines. He left home in 2016, after a lifetime of physical abuse at the hands of his uncle and father, he said. He first worked selling food at mines controlled by brutal gangs near Las Claritas, Venezuela. On April 25, 2017 he entered Brazil with a friend without stopping at the Brazilian federal police checkpoint at the border. “I came in avoiding the police,” he said. “I was afraid.” So, he was not counted as an unaccompanied child in the official tally.
For the next three months, he lived in the streets of the border town of Pacaraima, unloading trucks, gardening, and doing other jobs, until he accompanied an acquaintance to do some paperwork and came in contact with representatives of the city’s guardianship council, who sent him to a state shelter in Boa Vista, the state capital.
Five months later, after resisting efforts by Brazilian adolescents to recruit him into criminal gangs, he left the shelter. For more than a year and a half, he lived on the streets of Boa Vista. He worked cleaning houses and, like other children in vulnerable situations, started using marijuana and cocaine to blunt anxiety. “I cried and told myself that was not the life I wanted,” he said. “I did not want to get lost in that madness. There are many crack users on the streets.”
Since September, Luis has lived with a Brazilian family who took him in. He said he does not want to go back to Venezuela because of the abuse he suffered there. Despite his contact with Pacaraima’s guardianship council and shelter staff, he has yet to apply for asylum or residency in Brazil and remains undocumented.
Luis has not attended school for two years but hopes to. “I want to graduate and become a systems engineer, and travel to Japan and around the world,” he said.
Pedro M., 12, and Mariana M. (pseudonyms), 13, brother and sister, left Venezuela separately in 2019. They now live together in a UN shelter for Venezuelan families in Roraima, without access to school.
Pedro and Mariana lived on rice and sardines, when there were any, with their parents in their native San Félix, Venezuela. They sometimes spent entire days without food. “He was very thin, so was I,” Mariana said. While in Venezuela, Mariana twice suffered chikungunya and malaria, both mosquito-borne treatable illnesses, but got no medicine.
Pedro left first, in about February. He meant to hitchhike to Las Claritas and work in the mines with another brother, 14, who was already there. “I wanted to help him, to buy more food,” Pedro said. Pedro said he overslept in a van that had picked him up while he was hitchhiking and ended up reaching the border with Brazil. He lived with a cousin for two months in Pacaraima, he said, and then the guardianship council took him to a state shelter in Boa Vista. He escaped from there and lived in the streets until Mariana found him.
Mariana said she left home a few months after Pedro to look for him, carrying nothing but a bag of clothes. She hitchhiked to the border and came into Brazil with a friend, a 14-year-old girl who now lives in the streets, and a 22-year-old woman.
Pedro and Mariana live together in one of the shelters set up for Venezuelans by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Brazilian federal authorities. They are not going to school because no adult can take them there and pick them up, the shelter coordinator told Human Rights Watch.
Venezuelan Migration into Brazil
Successive Brazilian governments have maintained an open-door policy toward Venezuelans fleeing hunger, lack of basic health care, or persecution. Brazilian government figures show that in September, more than 224,000 Venezuelans lived in Brazil. More than half of them requested asylum, while the rest applied for residency. In June, Brazil’s federal refugee agency declared that a “serious and widespread violation of human rights” exists in Venezuela, a legal declaration that speeds up granting asylum.
The vast majority of Venezuelans enter Brazil through Roraima and many remain there because the state is poorly connected to the rest of the country. The influx of Venezuelans has overloaded state and municipal health care services, schools, and social services for vulnerable children, state authorities told Human Rights Watch.
In March 2018, Brazil’s federal government created Operation Welcome to coordinate emergency assistance to the most vulnerable Venezuelan migrants and refugees who arrive in Roraima. UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations support the effort, led on the ground by Brazil’s armed forces.
Operation Welcome has built and operates 13 shelters in Roraima, which housed 6,461 people in mid-October, said Lt. Col. Fábio Fernandez, an Operation Welcome official. The armed forces also provide tents and security each night at a site near the Boa Vista bus station for about 1,000 Venezuelans who would otherwise sleep on the street.
Fernandez said Operation Welcome’s priority right now is relocating Venezuelans to other states where they can have more opportunities for work and services. Relocation is voluntary. By September 2019, 16,611 Venezuelans had been relocated to shelters, to friends’ or relatives’ homes, or to fill in jobs offered by companies outside of Roraima. Operation Welcome made all arrangements for more than 10,000 of them, while nongovernmental organizations relocated the rest (in these cases, Operation Welcome typically arranges only for flights and the nongovernmental group is responsible for living arrangement).
Brazil’s Failure to Protect Unaccompanied Children
While comprehensive information about why children flee Venezuela on their own is not available, federal public defenders and UN officials said that they believe some flee hunger and seek to work in Brazil, some look for treatment for serious health conditions, and others are escaping family abuse.
From May 1 through November 21, 2019, 529 unaccompanied children were stopped at the only port of entry at the Venezuelan/Brazilian border, at the Brazilian town of Pacaraima, according to the Brazil Federal Public Defenders Office (DPU). About 60 percent were girls.
Ligia Prado da Rocha, the agency’s secretary of strategic affairs, said that the higher number of girls is because the agency counts as “unaccompanied” girls under 18 who come into Brazil with men who are over 18 to whom they are married or in a relationship.
In addition, 2,133 “separated” children came into Brazil from May through November 21, 2019, according to DPU. Nearly all traveled with an adult relative who is not their legal guardian. Of the 2,133 children, 43 percent came with a grandmother, 19 percent with an aunt, and the rest with other female and male relatives. About half were girls.
Federal public defenders interview each unaccompanied and separated child who comes through the port of entry, to assess their personal circumstances and vulnerability.
The Federal Public Defenders Office provides unaccompanied children with information about services. It also informs them that state (not federal) public defenders can ask courts to grant temporary custody to an adult, or grant them emancipation if they are 16 or older, da Rocha said. After that, they let most unaccompanied children into Brazil on their own.
“We don’t have capacity to do follow-up,” said da Rocha. In fact, Brazilian authorities and UN agency representatives told Human Rights Watch, nobody tracks the vast majority of unaccompanied and separated children after they enter Brazil.
The interviews are based on a form in a joint resolution issued on August 9 by the National Council for the Rights of Children and Adolescents (CONANDA, in Portuguese), the National Committee for Refugees (CONARE, in Portuguese), the National Immigration Council (CNIg, in Portuguese), and the Federal Public Defenders Office.
The resolution instructs federal defenders to be alert to the possibility that the children are victims of human trafficking. Da Rocha said they have so far only encountered one case of suspected trafficking, of a Venezuelan baby.
Like other Venezuelans, unaccompanied children can apply for asylum or residency, with assistance from federal public defenders at the border. Children will have to renew those applications after one year for asylum and two years for residency. The resolution entrusts federal public defenders with “supporting” those children in future applications but the agency does not monitor the cases and or keep track of the children once they enter the country due to lack of capacity, an agency representative said.
Unaccompanied children face additional difficulties in Brazil. Many want to work to provide for themselves and send money back home, but Brazilian child-labor legislation restricts their options for legal work. Children who are 14 or older can enroll in practical training programs in which they should earn at least the minimum wage. Children 16 or older can perform regular work but with some protections that make hiring them less attractive than hiring an adult for some companies. The companies need to give them time to go to school and cannot employ them for night shifts or in conditions that are considered dangerous or unhealthy.
In addition, children cannot access school, health care, and other services without a legal guardian, da Rocha and Marcela Ulhoa, the Emergency Child Protection Officer at UNICEF, said.
Those legal obstacles make it crucial to have a system to support them, but such a system does not exist.
The Federal Public Defender’s Office hands off to Pacaraima’s guardianship council children it believes are particularly vulnerable and need to be housed in a state shelter.
But conditions in the only two shelters for children ages 12 to 17 in Roraima have deteriorated markedly due to overcrowding – the girls’ shelter was 50 percent over capacity and the boys’ at double capacity in September. The State Council for the Rights of Children and Adolescents of Roraima – a body made up of government officials and representatives of nongovernmental groups – criticized conditions at the boys’ shelter in September, saying it had insufficient food and hygiene.
“They don’t even have a broom to sweep the floor,” Paulo Thadeu Franco das Neves, president of the council, told Human Rights Watch.
On September 13, in a ruling that ordered the shelters to stop admitting children, a judge found that those shelters did not provide safe and clean facilities, nor the educational support required by law.
That left Roraima’s guardianship councils with nowhere to send unaccompanied Venezuelan children in need of shelter, said Andreza Ferreira, a member of Boa Vista’s council. When the guardianship council receives a case now, it seeks a judicial order to have the unaccompanied child placed in Operation Welcome shelters for families and lone adults, Ferreira said.
In mid-October, when Human Rights Watch visited those shelters, they housed only eight unaccompanied children, a UNHCR representative said. The children lived in refugee housing units, along with hundreds of other Venezuelans, without gender separation and without any adult specifically assigned to their care even though Brazilian law requires that institutions that house children provide “personalized services or in small groups.”
These shelters only have one social worker for every 300 children, the UNHCR office in Roraima told Human Rights Watch.
The state of Roraima should work jointly with Brazil’s federal government and municipal authorities as well as with federal and state justice officials, to establish systems and to secure funding to identify, track, and support unaccompanied Venezuelan children, in collaboration with UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations operating in the area.
Those government entities, international agencies, and nongovernmental organizations should create a permanent working group to coordinate services for unaccompanied children. The working group should design a flow of actions and communication between municipal, state, and federal officials, and international agencies that ensures protection for those children.
Those procedures should include robust interviews at the border that produce key information about the reasons children are leaving Venezuela and the potential for family reunification; referral of all cases to the guardianship councils for assessment and follow-up; and systems to provide children with food, shelter, health care, and schooling in Brazil, to prevent gender-based violence and/or other types of abuse, and to help children with application and renewal of documentation, including applying for asylum or residency.
Procedures should also include coordination with the International Red Cross to locate parents in Venezuela when that is in the child’s best interest, and with state and federal agencies to locate relatives in Brazil. The federal government should also work with other countries in the region on drafting and carrying out an agreement to facilitate the reunification of unaccompanied Venezuelan children with family members in third countries.
Authorities should also open the possibility of relocating unaccompanied Venezuelan children to Brazilian states further away from the border, where they might have access to better services or may be placed with a temporary host family if in their best interest and taking account of the children’s views.