The category of nationality in an investigation on Colombian refugees in Brazil
By Angela Facundo Navia
For several years I have conducted anthropological research on the political and administrative character of refuge in Brazil. Although more recently I have worked with people from other countries, my expertise mostly rests on the experiences of Colombians with a wide range of state officials, international agencies and NGOs.
The mention of nationality when describing the groups we work with is viewed with suspicion by some authors addressing the anthropology of migration. They point out, quite rightly, that considering nationality as the main criterion for the analysis of what happens to people when they migrate may disregard other more important factors such as class, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, political action, etc. These categories are indeed better suited to explain the enormous inequalities in access to the benefits and rights in the citizen’s link with a state. The criterion of nationality, moreover, can lead us to take for granted or naturalize the very idea of nationhood, that is, a permanent construction that aims to encompass an enormous diversity of subjects, times, spaces, experiences, and memories, and present it to us as an experience common to the group of people it tries to describe (Colombians, Haitians, Venezuelans, Syrians, etc.).
We know that, on the contrary, in addition to the differentiated experiences that we have just pointed out, regional variations in Latin American countries are strongly marked and become indispensable elements for understanding the reasons why people migrate, flee, are displaced or are afraid to return. Finally, the criticisms point, also rightly, to the fact that not all people have a nationality and that the dispute over what the national project should look like is often the source of the violence that expels people and allows banishment to be one of the contemporary political punishments.
On the other hand, there are also risks if the category of nationality or national origin of refugees is completely ignored in our investigations. Like it or not, the prevailing model of contemporary planetary organization is that of nation-states that provokes what author Liisa Malkki calls the "national order of things" (1995). Refugees in that order are thought of and produced as inhabitants of a different world: "the world of refugees", as people who are outside the national order and outside the power of the state, as Butler has also pointed out in conversation with Spivak (2007). This reading ignores the situations of violence and injustice that led to the exodus from their country of origin, nationality or where they lived for a time. The formulas so used in the language of humanitarian management in Brazil such as restart, new opportunity and a life that is remade from scratch also reinforce the idea that the refugee ceases to exist in that hostile place of origin and will be reborn protected and sheltered in a place of peace. It is also assumed that this change of state will occur thanks to the power of the State to recognize people as refugees. That is clearly not what happens. Nor do these notions mirror what we have seen in the trajectories of refugees, even among those who manage to activate an official application or obtain such recognition[i].
In the case of Colombia, moreover, nationality has been used not only to describe and qualify people, but also the conflict itself, which causes one of the most intense and prolonged displacements in the world, leaving to date more than 8 million people forcibly displaced and almost 400 thousand refugees (UNHCR, 2000).[ii] The formula "the internal Colombian conflict" invokes the idea that this is only a product of relations between individuals and groups within the country, ignoring the game of international interests that feeds and keeps it active and, in addition, reinforces the imagination of a conflict contained by the fictitious lines that are the geopolitical borders. The dynamics of the war in Colombia, as persecution of political opponents and social leaders, the control of local economics with practices such as money-lending, forced displacement of populations and the export of paramilitaries and mercenaries (as was made clear in the recent assassination of the president of Haiti), to name but a few, are practices that have passed beyond Colombia's national borders long ago and are part of regional dynamics.
As a research category, nationality does not necessarily give us information about people's specific experiences or conditions, or even their character, way of thinking, and personality. Instead, it locates the analysis of the social situation in a geopolitical context. In addition, the diplomatic relationship between different countries usually affects the administrative responses of a government when it comes to acknowledging groups of refugees. This can be seen in the attitude of the Brazilian government to Venezuelans. Another case in point is the issuance of humanitarian visas for most of the Haitians who arrived at the beginning of the last decade[iii].
In the early 2010s, the massive presence of people from Haiti strongly mobilized public opinion, the media and humanitarian agencies in Brazil, as is the case today with Venezuelans. In this context, most of the economic benefits or in-kind donations distributed by NGOs went to Haitians, generating discontent on the part of some white-mestizo Colombian families who at the time lived in the same shelters and demanded the same benefits. Some Afro-Colombians, on the other hand, benefited from a kind of racially informed blindness of some officials who thought, according to my interlocutors, that all the black people in these management spaces were Haitians. Thus, a political-administrative decision, based on the national order of things, directly impacted the daily lives and coexistence of people who shared the status of asylum seekers.
In the contexts investigated, nationality also appears as an element of negotiation based on the attributes that are commonly associated with a certain group. The refugees and applicants with whom I spoke were convinced, for example, that Colombians were very hardworking and that this characteristic was associated with nationality. Other nationalities, by contrast, were thought to be lazy and deceptive. Elsewhere (Facundo, 2021), I have explored how these supposed national characteristics are associated with gender and especially with race. Here, I want to point out that the interpretation of the national characteristics was not only carried out by migrants, but also by the officials responsible for implementing the programs for the reception and care of refugees and applicants.
As for the Colombian refugees in Brazil, it struck me that the officials emphatically referred to their case as positive and that this evaluation was based not only on the technical competence of the programs and officials, but also on the characteristics of the Colombians. According to officials, Colombians, especially those who arrived as refugees through the solidarity resettlement program, were very grateful people, who accepted any job, who complained little about life's problems and were always willing to make progress. Most striking to me was that those supposed characteristics of Colombians were always contrasted with the supposed characteristics of Palestinians who had also arrived in the country through the resettlement program. For the officials I interviewed, the Palestinians had acquired "the habit of protest" and that prevented them from establishing a dialogue that Brazilian programs considered adequate and educated, as was explored by Sonia Hamid (2019). In addition, their cultural habits and their alleged machismo contrasted, according to the officials, with Brazilian cultural dynamics, including hygiene habits, the custom of salaried female labor, as well as the manifestation of gratitude. In that permanent comparison, Colombians in Brazil were constructed as a “close otherness” in contrast to the “radical otherness” represented by other national groups.
In addition to the interpretation of nationality, another element that allowed an immense drama, still active, of millions of people banished, exiled, persecuted, to be transformed into a successful story of refuge and integration in the Brazilian nation, was the small number of Colombian refugees. At the time I started the investigations there were fewer than 700 Colombians, most of whom had come through the Brazilian resettlement program for Colombian refugees in Ecuador (which at the time had recognized almost 60,000 Colombian refugees). Therefore, they had not arrived in Brazil on their own and had not activated an application for refuge. The low number of Colombian refugees was not read by the representatives of the government or its NGOs as a problem. Quite the contrary: it was seen as evidence of the good technical management of programs that only brought in people according to the reception capacity. Moreover, starting in 2011, when Colombia's then-president recognized for the first time in national history that there was an armed conflict, Brazilian officials' interpretation was that Colombia would be in the process of finding its way to peace and therefore capable of protecting its own citizens. This interpretation translated into a refinement of the selection criteria for spontaneous refugees, a reduction in the number of applications granted, and the progressive deactivation of the resettlement program for Colombians.
The Residence and Free Transit Agreement between Mercosur member countries and partners, including Colombia, was also a key element in reducing the number of refugee applications. According to my interlocutors, federal police officials refused to open the refugee application processes, citing the option of obtaining immigration regularization through the residence treaty. Furthermore, many of those holding the required documents and capable of paying the fees, chose this option, as it did not impose restrictions on them in entering and leaving the country, or paying vital visits to Colombia. The national and international bodies responsible for the management of refugees and migrants insist on the need to distinguish between different categories to safeguard the status of the refugee. However, in the daily lives of the people with whom I worked, these categories are often mixed.
In recent years, the situation in Colombia has deteriorated again. Assassinations of social leaders and signatories of the failed peace agreement have increased exponentially. Collective displacements and massacres have again reached the same scale as in the closing decade of the last century, leaving vast territories available for mega mining, agro-industrial, tourism and energy generation projects. The repression of social protest leaves hundreds of people missing, killed, maimed, or imprisoned without due process of law.[iv] Social inequality is progressively increasing on account of the prevailing war economy and the Covid-19 pandemic[v].
Despite rising Colombian applications for asylum in Brazil, the majority of residence permits issued since 2016 are based on the Mercosur agreement. This calls into question the supposed transparency according to which an experience of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution translates into a request for protection or its recognition. I do not intend to question the moral and existential value that the figure of the refugee has for many people, and that, in multiple ways, dignifies and recognizes their suffering. But based on the case illustrated here, I suggest that not all the well-founded fears of persecution are captured by this juridical-political figure.
Moreover, we can say that the economic consequences of the state of war experienced by a country like Colombia make it difficult to distinguish the threats to life derived from deterritorialization from economic or political threats. The perception of events in a given country and their translation into protection policies for the affected persons is a complex game that includes decisions and administrative traditions of the nation-state and diplomatic relations, as well as assessments and negotiations with categories of nationality that qualify individuals and the conflicts or causes of expulsion. Yet, perhaps most importantly, protection and policies also depend on the assessments and choices (even if they are very limited) of migrants themselves.
BUTLER, Judith; SPIVAK, Gayatri. Who Sings the Nation-State? Language, Politics, Belonging. Oxford: Seagull Books, 2007
FACUNDO, Angela. "Territories of experience and places of administration in an ethnography about Colombian refugees in Brazil". In: Ethnography and space: conceptual transits and challenges of doing (Quiceno Toro e Echeverri Zuluaga, comp.) Medellín: Universidad de Antioquia, 2021 (in press).
HAMID, Sônia C. (Des) Integrando Refugiados: os processos do reassentamento de palestinos no Brasil. 1. ed. Brasília: Editora UnB, 2019
MALKKI, Liisa. Purity and exile: violence, memory, and national cosmology among Hutu refugees in Tanzania. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
UNHCR Global Trends 2020
[i] Many of the contemporary nation state mobility regimes are based on what is known as “reciprocity rule”. This means that the nation states treat citizens of a determinate country as their own citizens are treated in that country. One of the problems of that manifestation of the power of the state is that stateless persons do not have a state to enable such rule. Often stateless persons are treated in the worst possible manner in the countries applying the reciprocity rule.
[ii] Due to the dynamics of the conflict in Colombia, which has lasted for more than 7 decades, there are disputes over the starting date for accounting for displacements. The year considered by the National Government is 1985. The historical record, according to the Registro Único de Víctimas (RUV) is 8.1 million displaced from 1985 to December 31, 2020. The IDMC (Global Observatory of Internal Displacement) in collaboration with the RUV published in 2021 a Global Report on Internal Displacement estimating that, of that historical accumulated, almost 3,300,000 people had overcome the condition of displacement to 2020. The number of people who remain displaced, according to that report, is 4,922,000. Nevertheless, considering that the conflict continues active, the risks of new displacements remain, and the historical record is used for social care and repair policies, the official data continues to be that of the historical record. https://www.internal-displacement.org/sites/default/files/publications/documents/grid2021_idmc.pdf#page=34?v=2
[iii] I thank Leonardo Schiocchet for reminding me that an exception to this dynamic was the case of Syrian refugees. The Brazilian government opted for the formula "refugees from the conflict in Syria." So he included in that group people of other nationalities, including Palestinian refugees. A much broader way of protection than that of other countries at the time.
[iv] See the Reports of Indepaz and Tremors: https://4ed5c6d6-a3c0-4a68-8191-92ab5d1ca365.filesusr.com/ugd/7bbd97_691330ba1e714daea53990b35ab351df.pdf
[v] These circumstances led to one of the most intense social massive protests in recent years. Since April 28 of this year a national strike was declared. More information about the situation of human rights in the context of the national strike was available in: http://www.indepaz.org.co/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/3.-INFORME-VIOLENCIAS-EN-EL-MARCO-DEL-PARO-NACIONAL-2021.pdf
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