“We asked for workers. We got people instead,” said the German novelist Max Frisch on immigration.
Across the world economies thrive on the essential role of migrant workers, but as we all know, immigration imports not only workers, but also individuals together with their cultural, social, religious and linguistic complexity.
A country with plenty of experience of this particular phenomenon is Brazil – a land where millions of European, indigenous Indian and African descendants have lived, married and procreated together for centuries. Brazil is also home to a huge number of Japanese (hence sushi bars are everywhere in the big cities) and Italians.
There is undoubtedly a huge and lingering social divide on racial lines, but it is a rather wonderful thing about Brazil that its people who are ethnically and racially so varied in appearance remain firmly unified in their national identity.
It was therefore a little surprising to learn of the negative feeling bubbling under the surface towards some of Brazil’s latest migrants – Haitians.
Thanks to One World Media – I had the opportunity to visit the rather forgotten Amazonian region of Acre, Brazil in June. It was here, in this interior state that shares a border with Peru and Bolivia that I visited a new shelter that acts as a transit point for the thousands of Haitian migrants crossing the border through Acre.
Acre is much poorer than the rest of Brazil. In 2010 its GDP per capita was less than 60% of the national average. When heavy flooding restricted fuel and food supplies a few months back, the state social services were unable to cope and a humanitarian crisis unfolded. Thousands of migrants were forced to live in squalid conditions in a shelter intended for only a few hundred people.
The federal government initially welcomed them after the 2010 earthquake, providing them with humanitarian visas expecting they would fill the required gap for migrant workers.
Four years on, around 40 Haitians still enter Brazil daily via a treacherous journey through Ecuador and Peru.
While conditions are stable at the new shelter now – there are academics, such as Professor Letícia Mamed who are more interested in the broader implications of tens of thousands of Haitian migrants entering Brazil at a critical time for the country’s development.
“Many Brazilians are afraid because they associate the new migrants with cholera,” she said, “though I’d expect them to be more sympathetic – it wasn’t that long ago that we Brazilians were doing the same thing, going in search of work to earn money in a land of opportunity.”
Those harbouring such sentiments could perhaps do with a reminder of what Franklin D Roosevelt once said, “Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants.”
Listen to a ‘From our own correspondent’ on Haitian migrants in Brazil: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p023gbyk