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Brazil has reopened its northern border to Venezuelan refugees after briefly blocking the frontier earlier in the week. The Supreme Court overruled a decision made by a federal court in the state of Roraima to temporarily close the border in an attempt to contain the influx of migrants. In Supreme Court Judge Rosa Weber’s ruling on the federal court’s decision she said, ‘It is not justified to take the easy path to ‘close the doors’ because of difficulties in hosting refugees’.
Hours earlier, federal Judge Helder Barreto argued that the suspension was necessary in order for the border state to create the conditions suitable for a ‘humanitarian reception’. In justifying his ruling, which was met with outcry by humanitarian groups, Judge Helder Barreto argued that a state could ‘adopt the immigration policy that it understands, as long as it does not violate the Federal Constitution and the autonomy of states, and municipalities.’ However, the Supreme Court decision declared the request to close the borders as contrary ‘to the foundations of the Federal Constitution, Brazilian laws and treaties ratified by Brazil.’
Roraima, located in the Amazonian region of North Brazil, is one the country’s least populated state with approximately 500,000 citizens. It is also one of its poorest The migration crisis has put significant strain on the state’s health and education services with the rate of health attendances rising by 6500% in 2017. Crime rates are also said to have increased by 132% since 2015.
While the main border crossing, near the small border city of Pacaraima was closed on Monday, around 200 Venezuelans found themselves unable to process their immigration registration. The impact of the surge in asylum seekers is most visible in Pacaraima where currently there is an estimated 3000 Venezuelan refugees sleeping in the streets.
Shelters in the town, and across the state, are stretched to capacity. Socorro Lopes, who coordinates a shelter for indigenous migrants in Pacaraima, told The Guardian that there are 400 people sleeping at the shelter, despite it only having the capacity for 250. ‘It is not ideal, but we have a structure,’ she said. In Boa Vista, the state’s capital, Venezuelans account for around 20% of the city’s population.
In previous months, the state government has urged the Supreme Court to shut the border crossings with figures suggesting around 500 Venezuelans cross the northern border each day. Following the federal court ruling, state governor Suely Campos told reporters ‘We have been asking the federal Supreme Court since May to close the border, as well as for financial assistance to minimise the impact on public services.’
The state has requested $49 million in compensation in order to cope with the costs to their health, education and security services. As well as this, at the beginning of the month, Campos made it mandatory for Venezuelans to present their passports in order to access social services and issued a decree that police must deport any migrants who commit crimes.
Since 2015, more than 56,000 Venezuelans have fled to Brazil to escape the political unrest, violence and economic despair embattling their home country. Hyperinflation has led to record food and medicine shortages, with supermarket shelves bare and power failures frequent. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reported that 117,000 Venezuelans have claimed asylum this year, already more than the total figure for 2017.
Federal police reported on Tuesday that the migration patterns in Roraima had returned to normal following the reversal of the decision to close the border. However, the question remains as to how an overwhelmed and under-resourced state will continue to manage such mass migration.