BOA VISTA — While Venezuelans fleeing their country's debilitating economic crisis have been crossing by the droves into Colombia, another migrant route has emerged. A growing number of Venezuelans have begun heading south, into the Brazilian state of Roraima, with reports of more than 8,000 entereing the northernmost and least populated state of Brazil in the first four weeks of 2018.
From there, some continue on to Brazil's more populous southeastern cities. But a surprising large number are settling in Boa Vista, the Roraima state capital, where Venezuelans (about 40,000 of them) now make up approximately 10% of the population, the Rio de Janeiro-based daily O Globo reports.
After crossing over from the small Venezuelan city of Santa Elena de Uairen, Venezuelan migrants must endure an arduous two-day journey along a 218-kilometer highway that links the border region of Paracaima with Boa Vista. Along the BR-174 highway and in Boa Vista's streets, locals and migrants speak a mix of Portuguese and Spanish to communicate.
"Life on the streets of Brazil is better than life in Venezuela, because at least here we have food," Luiz Gonzalez, 36, tells O Globo. Like many other recent arrivals, he sleeps in a city square — along with about 300 other Venezuelans.
While Brazil registered only 280 asylum requests from Venezuelan nationals in 2015, that figure skyrocketed to 17,130 last year. None of the petitions were accepted by Brazil's National Committee for Refugees, largely because most Venezuelans in Brazil fled their home country to escape hunger and poverty, not political persecution.
With an average age of 25, many Venezuelan emigrants in Brazil are eager to work and seek temporary residence, a status that allows them to apply for jobs in the country. From August to December 2017, 3,350 Venezuelans submitted applications for temporary residence permits.
He is here to protect us.
Boa Vista is bearing the brunt of the recent wave of arrivals. The number of Venezuelan children enrolled in local schools shot up by more than 1,000% between 2015 and 2017, and the city's three migrant welcome centers only have space for 2,000 people — wildly inadequate for the Venezuelan population of 40,000.
Late last year, after the governments of Roraima and Boa Vista declared they did not have the resources to keep up with the pace of arrivals, the federal government declared a state of emergency to tackle the immigration crisis. With an increase in petty crime and prostitution on the city's outskirts that some locals attribute to Venezuelans, intolerance and xenophobia are also on the rise.
Rather than attempting a life in one of the dangerous and overcrowded centers, many Venezuelans rough it out in one of the city's 53 squares. At Simón Bolívar square in southern Boa Vista, 300 migrants camp out beside a bust dedicated to Venezuela's founding father.
"For us, Simón Bolívar represents liberty and social equality," says recently arrived 29-year-old Kelly Gomez to O Globo. "This is our Venezuelan territory in Brazil. We feel (Bolívar) is here to protect us"