Government officials in Brazil say smugglers are moving Haitian migrants across the country's border with Peru, as many of them take a first step in the perilous journey north toward the United States.
The surge has led Brazil's national police to launch two operations to stop the smuggling of people in the region. The latest operation, which took place in early July, saw police execute five search and seizures warrants in four homes and a business in the northwestern border state of Acre.
The operation comes several months after Haitians – many of whom had spent years in Brazil – amassed near the Brazilian border. Many were leaving the country due to the pandemic-induced economic slowdown and rising anti-migrant sentiment, the BBC reported.
In February, the first operation took place amid mounting national media coverage about the migration crisis at the Acre border. That month, hundreds of mostly Haitian migrants tried to rush across the Brazil-Peru Integration Bridge, only to be forcibly turned back by Peruvian soldiers.
Brazilian authorities blamed smugglers for "contributing to the worsening" of the occupation of the bridge, according to a news release.
Frequent border closures to stop the spread of COVID-19, which has ravaged South America, have also pushed migrants to seek out smugglers, with migrants paying large sums of money to be transported across the Acre River by boat or smuggled into Peru via Bolivia.
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Amid accelerating economic decline in Brazil due to the pandemic, Haitians who previously went to Brazil to find work are now heading north – and smugglers are profiting from the reversal of this migration flow.
The 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti had led Brazil, in need of low-wage workers, to initially offer many of them humanitarian visas. They later began to enter the country illegally.
The northwestern state of Acre was a major illegal entry point, with between 40 and 60 Haitian migrants crossing from Peru every day at peak times. Migrants paid up to $4,000 to coyotes and corrupt police officers for safe passage.
Now smugglers are welcoming the Haitian exodus from Brazil, which has become swift and sizeable, with thousands leaving the country to travel north through South and Central America to the US-Mexico border.
Why is this happening? Experts argue that migration routes may quickly reverse as socio-economic opportunities change within host countries. This may be particularly true for Haitian migrants.
“[F]or Haitian migrants, the destination is not always fixed, hence the circulatory nature of Haitian migration…Therefore, today’s destination country can easily become tomorrow’s transit point,” a 2020 report by the Migration for Development and Equality Project, a global academic study that researches migration corridors in the Global South, noted.
Political changes in the United States may also be providing an unwitting incentive for Haitians to head north. In January 2021, the number of Haitian migrants apprehended by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) more than tripled when compared to the same month in 2020, the BBC reported.
"Since the transition to...the government of [US President] Joe Biden, there are expectations by migrants about a reform to the United States' migration laws...it is possible these migrants living in Brazil are also being encouraged to leave Brazilian territory," Leticia Mamed, a migration specialist at the Federal University of Acre, told the BBC.