In an unprecedented effort to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, South American countries implemented border restrictions. While most recognised the urgency to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and said that closing borders was a ‘hysterical’ move. Nevertheless, Brazil partially closed its borders with Venezuela on 18 March 2020. By that time, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela had already adopted stricter border restrictions. On 19 March, Brazil’s federal government announced further mobility restrictions by limiting the movement of foreign nationals across its land borders; however, airports remained open. Brazil only halted the entry of all foreigners via land, air and water transport two months later.
Considering that Brazil’s government was reluctant to impose any mobility restrictions at all, it is significant that Venezuela was singled out as the first country subject to border closures. This measure restricted the entrance of foreign nationals coming from Venezuela via Pacaraima in the state of Roraima, their main point of entry into Brazil. However, the transit of goods was exempted from these restrictions. President Jair Bolsonaro explained that allowing the movement of goods to continue across that border was crucial to prevent Roraima’s economy from collapsing. In order to secure the border, Brazil deployed its army to monitor the Federal Highway Police checkpoint.
Brazil’s restrictions on the Venezuelan border seem to be based on the premise that the political tensions in that country have led many to cross the land border into Brazil searching for refuge and resources. President Bolsonaro said that closing the borders with other South American countries would not have been a practical solution against COVID-19, but that the situation in Venezuela required an exception. Moreover, the federal government expressed its concerns that Brazil’s decentralized national healthcare system (Sistema Único de Saúde, SUS) would have difficulties providing treatment to immigrants suffering from coronavirus infection.
Diplomatic relations between Brazil and Venezuela – already tense as President Bolsonaro refuses to recognise Nicolás Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate leader – further deteriorated during the COVID-19 pandemic. On 5 March 2020, the Brazilian government ordered the return of four Brazilian diplomats and 11 officials. Similarly, on 28 April, Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs ordered 34 Venezuelan diplomats to return to Venezuela within five days. In response, the Venezuelan government informed Brazil that their diplomatic team would not abandon their posts and functions.
Selective mobility restrictions targeting Venezuelans
On 22 May, the Brazilian federal government published the Interministerial Ordinance No. 225, halting the entry of foreign nationals into Brazil by land, water and air. The ordinance included an exception for immigrants with permanent residency status and foreigners with Brazilian spouses, partners, parents or offspring, among others, who were allowed to continue entering the country. This exception, however, did not apply to people coming from Venezuela. Furthermore, Ordinance No. 225 allowed foreigners to travel between twin cities (international border municipalities) but excluded those alongside the Venezuelan border.
Brazil’s Public Defender’s Office (Defensoria Pública da União, DPU) filed a public civil action on 27 May to request the repeal of Ordinance No. 225 for its discriminatory nature against Venezuelan migrants. The DPU argued that the ordinance was causing considerable challenges for hundreds of thousands of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers in Brazil. Mobility restrictions implemented by Ordinance No. 225 also permitted border authorities to reject any request for refuge, as well as carry out deportations and forced repatriations. The ordinance made it impossible for people arriving from Venezuela to seek refuge in Brazil, thereby neglecting the needs of vulnerable migrant groups such as young and elderly people and potential victims of human trafficking.
Selective reopening of borders
Venezuelan citizens were singled out again during the process of border reopening. On 30 June 2020, Brazil relaxed its mobility restrictions and allowed foreign nationals to enter the country via the Guarulhos International Airport in São Paulo, the Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport in Rio de Janeiro, the Viracopos International Airport in Campinas, and the President Juscelino Kubitschek International Airport in Brasília. The Brazilian government reopened its air space to all international flights and foreign nationals on 29 July. International flights could enter all airports in the country, except for those located in the states of Mato Grosso do Sul, Paraíba, Rondônia, Rio Grande do Sul and Tocantins. To enter Brazil, foreign nationals were required to present proof of health insurance valid for the entire period of their stay and a negative COVID-19 test result.
While some airports reopened, Brazil’s federal government continued prohibiting the entry of foreigners of all nationalities by land or sea for an additional 30 days. Authorities also made an exception for foreigners who needed to cross over into Brazil from neighbouring countries to board a return flight to their home countries; however, this did not include foreigners arriving from Venezuela.
The new regulations clarified that those who entered the country without permission would be subject to ‘civil, administrative and criminal liability; repatriation or immediate deportation; and inability to request refuge’. This meant that asylum seekers, fleeing persecution and war, would not be able to seek refuge in Brazil.
Furthermore, while most immigrants who have residency in Brazil could cross the border, those arriving from Venezuela were selectively prevented from entering the country. The DPU and human rights organisations have criticised and challenged these discriminatory mobility restrictions, saying that such policies do not follow the international treaties which Brazil has signed. On 6 August 2020, the Brazilian government finally authorised the entry of 36 people, mostly Venezuelans, who had been stuck at the border between Brazil and Peru and living in limbo for three months, unable to move one way or the other.
Nevertheless, discriminatory mobility restrictions continued to target Venezuelan migrants. On 24 September, Brazil’s federal government released an ordinance prohibiting the entry of people of all nationalities into Brazil for a further 30 days, due to the uptick of COVID-19 cases in the country. These mobility restrictions applied only to people arriving by land or sea while flights continued coming in. The ban also exempted immigrants with permanent or fixed-term residency in Brazil, international organisations’ employees, foreigners who were granted permission of entry for humanitarian reasons, and residents of twin cities whose governments reciprocally allowed Brazilian nationals to cross over.
Once again, this last exception did not apply to Venezuelans, who could not claim their family ties to Brazilian citizens to enter the country either. Venezuelans continued to be singled out with the extension of these mobility restrictions for another week in December. Brazil’s discriminatory mobility restrictions and border closures during the pandemic clearly show how international relations and politics have played a role as important as health considerations in designing public health policies in the country.