SÃO PAULO – Thousands of immigrants in Brazil are facing extreme poverty due to the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Church is working to help them.

About 14 percent of the South American country’s economically active population is unemployed, and 41 percent of the labor market is in the informal sector. The average income of Brazilian workers is declining, and inflation is impacting food and cooking gas prices.

“In Sao Paulo, unemployment is huge among immigrants. We have never had such a large flux of people coming here to the Mission asking for help and food,” said Father Paolo Parise, who coordinates Mission Peace, a welcome center for immigrants and refugees.

Many of them are Venezuelans, who entered the country in huge waves after 2015, and Haitians, who have been arriving since the 2010 earthquake.

“Despite all risks of the journey to the United States and the possibility of being deported, some Haitians are deciding to travel to North America,” Parise added.

The United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) recently said that 24 percent of the Haitian immigrants currently trying to get into the United States through the Mexican border come from Brazil.

With the intensification of the political crisis in Haiti since President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination in July and a devastating earthquake in August, the number of Haitians entering Brazil has been growing.

“Brazil allows them in with humanitarian visas,” Parise said.

From cities in the Southeast of the country like Sao Paulo, they travel by bus to the Amazonian State of Acre and cross the border with Peru. Groups of immigrants from African and Asian countries commonly use the same route.

“They cross through Colombia and go to Panama by boat. It is a terribly risky journey. The ones who make it then pass through several Central American countries and Mexico until they arrive to the United States border,” he explained.

But while they prepare to continue their journey northward, they have to find the means to survive in Brazil, something that Catholic institutions have been continually trying to ensure.

“We have made an initial mapping of the Church’s organizations that operate to help migrants and identified more than 100 of them in the whole country,” said Maria Cristina dos Anjos, Brazil’s Caritas national advisor for migration and refuge.

Dos Anjos said that the Brazilian Church has learned much from the Venezuelan crisis over the past few years, which led to a sudden explosion in the demand for social services.

“We are now a little more prepared to welcome the new waves of Haitians and Venezuelans that keep arriving,” she told Crux.

In 2020, the Catholic migration institutions created the Brazilian branch of the Latin American and Caribbean Ecclesiastic Network of Migration, Displacement, Asylum and Human Trafficking (known as Red Clamor), which has been established in 2017 by the Episcopal Conference of Latin America.

“The Brazilian Bishops’ Conference has demonstrated a great sensitivity concerning migration issues and has been dealing with them in connection to other social matters,” said Roberto Saraiva, the national coordinator of the Bishops’ Conference’s Migrants’ Pastoral Service.

But many dioceses are already overloaded.

“In 2018, we planned that 90 dioceses would welcome groups of Venezuelans. But only half of them actually did it,” he pointed out.

Most of the organizations that have been working with migrants are facing financial difficulties and have a lack of personnel.

That is the case in the Amazonian State of Roraima. Since the border with Venezuela was reopened a couple of months ago, the number of immigrants entering the Brazilian city of Pacaraima has grown exponentially. According to the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, the city, which has a population of 18,000 residents, already has 4,000 homeless Venezuelans living on the streets.

The local Caritas had created public restrooms, showers, and laundries in the city in 2020, in an effort to help the Venezuelan immigrants to keep healthy during the pandemic. But now the services are overloaded.

In the city of Tabatinga, which is on the border with Colombia and Peru in Amazonas State, the local Caritas has been working to help the immigrants and refugees who come and go, explained the Argentinian-born lay missionary Verónica Rubí.

“We are a reference for the travelers who pass by Tabatinga. Many of them have been robbed during their journeys, and at times they don’t have any documents or money,” said Rubí who coordinates the local Caritas.

She said that the pandemic has made people more vulnerable and open to exploitation in the labor market.

“Hunger also grew. We organized several food donation campaigns and were able to distribute more than 5,000 food kits,” Rubí told Crux.

She said that most of the immigrants who arrive in Tabatinga are Venezuelans who had already lived in Colombia, Peru, or Ecuador, and are now moving again in the search of a better life.

“Sometimes, Haitians and Africans also come here in order to go to Colombia,” she said.

At the end of August, Caritas launched an on-line platform called Migra Segura, which provides guidance on the immigrants’ rights, the necessary documents and the procedures to obtaining them, the network of institutions which can help them, and other useful information.

“The idea is to offer all information possible to Church people who are helping immigrants and to the immigrants themselves. Most of the material is in Spanish,” dos Anjos said.

The Brazilian Clamor Network intends to keep identifying Catholic immigration services and to include them in regional Clamor branches in order to strengthen the Church’s social structure, Parise said.

“But we have to raise awareness on those issues among dioceses and parishes too. All Catholics must be welcoming when it comes to immigrants and refugees,” he said.

Roberto Saraiva claimed that this is the greatest challenge. “I have already seen parishes in which the priest was trying to support immigrants and the churchgoers repudiated the idea,” he said.

“I have even seen people going to sit on another pew when an immigrant sat by their side in the church. We have a long way to go yet.”