The changing image of Brazilian immigrants

Last week pictures of 26-year-old Brazilian Paula Oliveira, with the initials of Switzerland’s main right-wing party cut into her body were printed all over the world. She claimed to have been attacked by skinheads in Zurich, but later reportedly confessed to self-mutilating. Now she is being investigated for misleading the police.

The fact is that Brazilians are committing more crime abroad – and being more noticed for that. Today there are about 3.5 million Brazilians living abroad, including a proportion of illegal migrants. About half of them go to the US, but Europe and Japan are also key destinations. In London where I lived, it was common for Brazilian to be involved in all sorts of scams, from recruiting illegal workers to arranged marriages to Europeans.

Only this week, 50 Brazilians were arrested on suspicion of faking and selling fake passports in Mantova, Italy. A similar operation had taken place in Spain in January, with 33 Brazilians arrested as fraudsters.

As a consequence, the image of Brazilian immigrants is now changing. For many, they are no longer seen as the smiling hard working types, but as potential criminals, fraudsters or illegal workers. More than that, such perception has started to influence the attitude of several foreign authorities towards Brazilians.

When I first lived in the UK in 1999, saying that you were from the land of football and samba always meant a warm welcome. Nowadays, any Brazilian travelling abroad must expect to be treated as a criminal until proven otherwise.

Take the UK, for instance. It is estimated that about 200 thousand Brazilians live in the country, half of them illegally. Since 2006, about 6 thousand Brazilians are deported every year – making Brazil the leader in “returned” citizens. Last year the Home Office included Brazil in a list of 11 countries whose citizens should require a visa before travelling to the UK.

The decision was taken on the basis of a Visa Waiver Test conducted by the Home Office which evaluated the incidence of immigration abuse including false documents, overstaying, illegal working and clandestine entry, the risk posed by the country’s nationals in terms of terrorism and criminality and the co-operation in re-documentation and return of nationals. In response to a Freedom of Information request made by me, the Home Office declined to reveal the conclusions of the Waiver Test to protect “international relations” (Section 27). However, the very inclusion of Brazil demonstrates a changing perception of our immigrants.

Another piece of information obtained through FOI request is even more revealing: between September 2005 and September 2008 the Home Office carried out 570 enforcement visits in the London Borough of Brent, an area known for its Brazilian population of about 30,000 individuals. That means one visit every two days. 

In Spain the situation is similar, if not worse. In 2008, 2.100 Brazilians were denied entry to the country, more than any other nationality. There are several reports of abuse by the Spanish airport authorities, including a recent claim by a 60-year-old musician, Guinga, who says he was attacked by a policeman at Madrid’s Barajas International Airport. The police denied.

In another European country, Portugal, a recent study conducted by the High Comission for Immigration and Dialogue showed that the image of Brazilians in the national media is increasingly associated to crime. According to researcher Isabel Ferin, the media tend to relate Brazilian men to robbery and Brazilian women to prostitution. It is an evidence that our image has changed not only in the eyes of authorities, but of the public opinion in general. 

Of course, criminality among Brazilian immigrants is a serious and sensitive issue, even more serious because no-one knows who to blame, or who should take responsibility for it. However, it has influenced, unfairly in many cases, on the way all Brazilians are being treated in some countries.