Brazil immigrants face long wait at border town

Immigrants waiting for breakfast distribution in Brasileia Medics fear an epidemic at the overcrowded shelter in Brasileia

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In the heart of a shelter packed with immigrants in the Brazilian state of Acre, about 30 men try to concentrate despite the noisy crowd.

Sitting on their mattresses, they read and pray quietly.

"Every day we ask God to shorten our stay here," says Ahmadou Thiao from Senegal.

He arrived two months ago in the town of Brasileia, near the border with Peru and Bolivia, and is one of 1,300 foreigners waiting for a visa to work in Brazil. The centre is meant to shelter just 200 people.

Many who came were attracted by reports of the South American country's growing economy and job opportunities leading up to the 2014 World Cup.

After entering Brazil, however, they were taken to a place with few toilets and no showers, surrounded by mud.

The vast border of South America's largest country makes it very difficult to stop this flow.

Officials in Acre have declared a "social emergency" in Brasileia and one other town, asking for help from the federal government including the use of security forces to try to contain the problem.

State Governor Tiao Viana describes the influx as a "human tragedy", calling for action from the Brazilian and Peruvian governments to address the situation.

Many migrants are being attracted to Brazil by the economic boom

He told BBC Mundo there was now a well established international route into Brazil and people from as far away as Bangladesh and Nigeria were aware of it.

"Intelligence agencies have identified the presence of 'coyotes' [people smugglers] earning a lot of money. And that is something we are worried about," he said.

"We cannot imagine that Brazil is going to solve the problems of the world and Africa."

State Secretary for Human Rights Nilson Mourao warned of a possible health crisis.

"Miraculously, everyone is healthy," he said.

"But if there is any epidemic at the shelter we wouldn't know what to do," he added, noting that outbreaks of dengue, a mosquito-borne disease, are common in the region.

Haitian connection

These 1,300 immigrants have caused a great impact on Brasileia, a quiet town with about 20,000 inhabitants. The town has limited resources and basic medical facilities.

Group of immigrants from Senegal waiting for their visas Ahmadou Thiao, left, made the long journey from Senegal to work in Brazil

The relationship between foreigners and locals is peaceful, but residents say it is getting harder to schedule medical appointments and that the streets are dirtier.

Some even say they are afraid to go into the streets at night, although there has been no recent increase in crime.

"When they first arrived we helped them a lot. But now they are too many and problems begin to arise," says pensioner Raimundo Soares.

Brasileia stands in the heart of the Amazon region in the north-west of the country, thousands of miles from the more developed south and south-east regions.

Most of the immigrants have fled Haiti where an earthquake in 2010 wrecked the economy. Since 2011 an estimated 5,600 have arrived, crossing over from Peru and Bolivia.

Mud around the shelter The shelter is surrounded by mud

But now the route is also used by migrants from countries such as Senegal, Nigeria, the Dominican Republic and even Bangladesh.

Haitians, however, get special treatment from the Brazilian government.

In 2012, the national immigration board started granting 1,200 annual work visas to families from the Caribbean island to meet the growing influx.

But the number of visas proved to be much lower than the demand. Over the past 15 days more than 1,300 Haitians crossed the border into Acre, more than the annual quota of visas.

The government then started giving extra visas at the border. But although Haitians receive visas within days or weeks, workers of other nationalities face uncertainties.

Waiting game

An official said non-Haitian immigrants would only be interviewed by authorities when the situation in the shelter eases. Even then, he says, they may have their requests denied.

One immigrant who asked not to be named said: "The situation where I come from is as bad as in Haiti, so why does the Brazilian government treat us differently?"

This man says that if he doesn't get a visa he will apply for refugee status in Brazil.

Most of the eight Dominicans in the shelter say they have been waiting for a month. One of them, fearing he will not be able to leave soon, started selling ham and cheese sandwiches to other immigrants to cover his expenses.

"There is no other option, so we have to wait," he says.

The shelter at Brasileia Acre, in the Amazon region, has asked for additional funding to cope with the influx

To get to Brazil, he flew to Ecuador and travelled by bus through Peru and Bolivia. The trip took him three days.

The 72 Senegalese faced an even tougher journey.

They went from Senegal's capital Dakar to Morocco by bus, crossing Mauritania. Then they flew to Spain and to Ecuador, where they joined groups of Haitians.

Some have been encouraged to come by friends who already live in the country. Others say they had no plans to live in Brazil but the economic crisis has made it harder to migrate to Europe and to the US.

If they get their visas there is reason for optimism. After this route became popular many Brazilian companies started visiting the shelter to hire new workers.

On Wednesday an entrepreneur took 50 Haitians to work in a food industry in Parana State in the south of Brazil.

While the country's economy continues to grow - albeit slowly - and its borders are open, it seems likely that immigrants will keep making the long journey to get here.

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