Starving Venezuelans fleeing across the border to Brazil have become a common sight around the dumpsters of the country’s biggest border cities, sending their children to find edible garbage to survive. The images, mirroring the reality in their home country, have triggered a backlash among the local population, Brazilian outlet Globo reported on Wednesday.
Globo’s report, featuring interviews with Venezuelan children foraging through edible garbage in Pacaraima, Roraima state, follows a violent weekend in that border town in which locals attempted to stone groups of Venezuelan refugees living on the streets and burned all of their belongings, demanding they leave the country. The border between Venezuela’s Amazonas state and Roraima has traditionally been an unguarded one, allowing for the neighboring communities to mix for decades. Brasilia is now considering increased border enforcement to protect the Venezuelans, fleeing from starvation in the socialist failed state and from violent locals.
Globo, a network that also includes the newspaper O Globo, found children digging through Pacaraima’s garbage piles shortly after dawn.
“Our mother does not have a job. She sells coffee on the street, but we lost everything when they burned our things,” an unnamed Venezuelan girl, age 11, told Globo on Tuesday, referring to the mass burning of Venezuelan refugee belongings this weekend by a Brazilian mob. “We’re looking for food, cans, and things to sell.” The article notes she was accompanied by a younger sibling and a childhood friend.
Other children tell Globo that they are looking for food their mother can repurpose into soups, which diminishes any rotting quality in them. Some, rather than look through garbage, beg for food, often with mixed results.
One local who spoke to Globo lamented the state of the children, calling it a “tragedy.”
Scavenging for food in the garbage has become a common sight throughout Venezuela, particularly the capital, Caracas. Observers have documented families making group trips to the large garbage piles that line the streets. Orphans form child gangs that look for both food to eat and food to sell. Those lucky enough to find enough edible food for themselves make packages of rotten bananas, restaurant leftovers, and other waste to sell to those who have enough to avoid digging through trash themselves.
A 2016 study found that 15 percent of Venezuelans rely on garbage to eat, a number believed to have gone up in the past two years, though an updated study has not been published.
“I’ve seen many Venezuelans looking for food in the trash. The children are not to blame and there are parents who put their children to ask, to sell because street vendors are prohibited from staying on the streets,” Leoneide Do Nascimento, who has lived in Pacaraima for 18 years, told the outlet.
Not all in the town have been so sympathetic. This weekend, an angry mob attacked a group of refugees living on the street, pelting them with stones and burning all their belongings. Local police, who were not fast enough to stop the attack, noted that no one was seriously hurt, but many refugees lost the little they had. One woman told local media that of particular concern was the burning of her legal documents, the only evidence she had that she and her children had entered Brazil legally. She can no longer prove that is the case.
The attack was far from the first. In March, local residents who were led by a pastor similarly burned the belongings of Venezuelans squatting in an abandoned building. Many such attacks occurred throughout Roraima at the beginning of the year, leading to government officials announcing they would ship refugees throughout the country to lower their numbers in February. While several dozens were relocated to Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and other larger cities, the move did little to ease the pressure on Roraima.
In Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima, enough Venezuelans have established themselves in tents and makeshift homes that they have begun to prepare to help newcomers. Pressure on them to leave is strong there, as well; local reports cite Venezuelans who say city residents regularly refer to them as a “plague” and attack not only the refugees themselves, but social workers sent to help them, accusing them of preferring to aid foreigners rather than poor locals. Roraima, deep in the Amazon rainforest, is home to a high volume of illegal drug activity and poverty and made headlines independently last year for being home to some of the most gruesome prison riots in Brazil’s history, a product of gang warfare.
The border between Venezuela and Brazil in this interior territory is largely porous. According to the newspaper Estadao, the governments of both nations traditionally allowed free transit, and even today, many Brazilians living on the border hop over to Venezuela to buy cheap gasoline. Venezuelans, meanwhile, enroll their sons and daughters in Brazilian schools to get away from the inferior socialist education imposed by dictator Nicolás Maduro. From Pacaraima to Venezuela’s Santa Elena de Uairén, Estadao noted, “the border with Venezuela is, essentially, a two-lane highway;” Estadao also noted that, in three crossings back and forth in one day, no border agents asked for legal documentation.
Brazil is considering more border security not only to prevent mob violence against the Venezuelans, but to ease tensions on its stressed social system. Venezuelans use schools, hospitals, and other Brazilian infrastructure that no longer exists in their country. Women, in particular, have taken to crossing the border during the end of their pregnancy to ensure they get health care during the birthing process.
Not all Venezuelans who do this are native to the border. One woman who spoke to O Globo after giving birth in Brazil walked 500 miles in her third trimester to get to Brazil because, she said, “My baby would have died if I had stayed. I [had] no food, no medicine, no doctors.”
Venezuelan baby births in Roraima have doubled in just two years.