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Migration and the aging body Elderly war refugees in Brazil between national borders and social boundaries

Bahia M. Munem

In January 2019, less than two weeks post-inauguration, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro announced that Brazil would no longer participate in the United Nations Migration Accord. Bolsonaro declared via Twitter, “Brazil has a sovereign right to decide whether or not it accepts migrants,” and then stated. "Not just anyone can come into our home” (Londono 2019). The move to pull out of the accord came shortly after it had been adopted by the UN General Assembly.1 Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration also refused to endorse the pact, which aims to provide a comprehensive approach to international migration and improved intergovernmental cooperation in light of the sizable movement of migrants and refugees propelled by war, political instability, and natural disaster. In fact, in August 2019, in a move to further narrow the entry of migrants into the country and reduce the ability to gain permanent residency, acting director of the Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Ken Cuccinnelli announced that the Trump administration would implement a “public charge” rule in determining admission into the United States and in granting green-cards to those already in the country. This new policy would ensure that those without financial resources could not remain and become reliant on the government for subsistence, regardless of whether their documents were in order.2 After being blocked by judges in lower courts in three states,3 the administration scored a victory in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in late January 2020 which allowed the “wealth test” to stand.4 While financial status is an obvious determinant, age, health, education, and skills are primary factors in making assessments.5

This ranking of who is worthy, “not just anyone” as Bolsonaro put it, is not a new phenomenon in immigration regimes nor in humanitarian governance, despite the recently garnered attention and rising anti-immigrant populism. Hierarchies of worthiness predicated on self-sufficiency and triaging of desirable bodies have long been mired in these logics. What then becomes of the elderly and infirm in these displacements, mobilities, and selections? How are bodies that are perceived as a burden with little capacity for “traditional” integration managed? How are migratory categories (migrant, asylum seeker, refuge, etc.) arbitrarily deployed to decide claims in receiving states? Utilizing a case study of Iraq War refugees resettled in Brazil, I will address these questions and demonstrate how the Brazilian state has managed aging and infirm

Migration and the aging body 241 refugees and show how granting asylum is conditioned by a humanitarian calculus nested within an economic logic - seeking those who are “fit” in terms of market potential. Faced with the presence of elderly refugees, and without social public policies aimed at this population, resettlement organizations have oscillated between proposals for institutional confinement of elders and making their families accountable for their well-being. I will also show how the displaced persons use their material-aged and ailing bodies, and their protracted status of refugees, as a means of protesting and resisting the status quo in Brazilian public policy by arousing discourses of deservedness and judicializing their rights as non-citizen subjects.

In a humanitarian overture in 2008, Brazil granted asylum to a group of just over 100 Palestinian-Iraq War refugees who had been languishing in a “temporary” UNHCR administered refugee camp (Ruweished) in the Jordan-Iraq border for nearly five years. They had fled Baghdad during the US invasion and were denied entry into Jordan since they were recognized as stateless and only had refugee documents (RDs). If allowed into Jordan, they could not be repatriated like Iraqi nationals and would have to remain there. Among them were single elders without families, in ill health, and for whom Brazil marked a third or fourth displacement. There were also elders who were part of fully constituted families. Based on extensive ethnographic research over several years, I explore how refugees negotiate and challenge Brazilian discourses of "integration" and belonging and analyze the perception, reception, and (dis)incorporation of resettled elderly and infirm refugees in the country.

The resettlement of Iraq War refugees in Brazil was based on a tripartite agreement. Two Catholic NGOs, Caritas Brasileira and Associacao Antonio Vieira (ASAV), in collaboration with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Brazil’s National Committee for Refugees (CONARE), were charged with overseeing the process. They were responsible for arranging direct sendees, such as medical care, housing, language courses, and for facilitating integration into local communities. The Brazilian overture to these specific refugees also bypassed the normative selection procedures by which a host nation chooses persons for whom to provide refuge. Usually a background check and intendew are conducted to determine if individuals are “good” candidates for asylum. Cristina, a representative from ASAV, described how the process works:

Normally we conduct an interview mission. We go there...for example, to Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama, in the case of Colombian [refugees] and review the cases that are being presented to Brazil. Then we conduct interviews and bring cases back and they are presented to the committee. That's the procedure: we go there first, to the place of asylum, interview, bring back to Brazil, present [the cases], then each is either accepted or not. The acceptance is not about choosing refugees, or if one is more or less of a refugee; it is about where and how they can be integrated in Brazil. So, if a family has three or four elderly people, with chronic health problems, a lot of times it’s not recommended that they come to Brazil. Because in Brazil we even have a good health system, very good health, but there are limits. There is no way to forever bankroll a very ill elderly person.

(Interview. July 17, 2010)

The asylum interview functions as an evaluation to determine whether specific persons are capable of being integrated into Brazilian society, with an emphasis on those who are able-bodied and without excessive needs. While on the one hand the selection process is enshrined in humanitarianism, it also operates within a neoliberal framework in that there is an assessment of the refugee’s employability and potential for self-sufficiency. And this is quite similar to the “public charge” rule in the United States with which I opened this chapter. In this way, selection of refugees mimics neoliberal practices of determining desirable and undesirable bodies by what anthropologist Aihwa Ong calls “marketable talents” (2006, 16). She asserts, "Low-skill citizens and migrants become exceptions to neoliberal mechanisms and are constructed as excludable populations in transit...[C]ertain rights and benefits are distributed to bearers of marketable talents and denied those who are judged to lack such capacity or potential” (Ibid). Refugees who do not display these labor prospects (i.e., under-educated, minimal work skills, ailing, elderly, etc.) are often viewed as a burden. The potential for selection increases for an individual if resettlement proves mutually beneficial, rather than those whose aged and/or disabled bodies mark them as socially dis-integratable.

Sociologists Mike Featherstone and Mike Hepworth assert, “as people become elderly and unable to reciprocate and perform responsibilities they are forced to withdraw from powerful social roles and lose prestige” (1991, 386). We are reminded here that a form of social-political dismemberment occurs with the elderly in what would be considered the “normal” life-course, but this also occurs within the context of refugee placement. The perceived bodily, social, and economic inabilities of the aged to integrate and participate impact the asylum decision. Brazil does not resettle the ailing and/or elderly precisely because of their perceived debility. Despite the humanitarian claims for taking in refugees, the way the ill and elderly are incorporated into the system's calculus sheds light on Brazilian public policy more broadly and the constitutive nationalism that shapes it.

In having refugee status, the resettled persons in Brazil could not be absorbed into social benefits programs for which permanent residency or citizenship were required. Instead, funding for a monthly living stipend, housing stipend, and money for language classes came from UNHCR, for the duration of the two years of assistance, and not the Brazilian govermnent. Conversely, had they been granted permanent residency immediately upon arriving, they could not have qualified for funding provided by UNHCR since funding is only allotted to those with refugee status.6 The state, in accordance to its constitutional obligation,7 provided the refugees with access to healthcare through the country's universal healthcare. Sistema Único de Saúde (SUS). However, as Cristina emphasized above, refugees with chronic health problems raise concerns since they require more intensive and long-term investment than what might be readily available under the SUS.

The general coordinator for CONARE, Renato Zerbini, corroborated Cristina’s account of the resettlement policy. He noted that Brazil generally did not resettle elderly refugees. Exceptions are only made in the case of family reunification, where an individual who has been resettled wants to bring an elderly parent. In such cases, the requestee assumes full responsibility for the elder family member. However, in the case of the Palestinian refugees, according to Zerbini, Brazil's “inherent humanitarian impulse” rightfully superseded these rales. “They would have died [in the desert]” had Brazil not made its humanitarian overture. In this declaration, Zerbini engages with Georgio Agamben’s “bare life” or “life exposed to death” (1998, 88) by asserting there were no political aims, dimensions, or considerations involved. Instead, resettling elderly refugees was simply meant to spare them from certain death. But this then begs the question: What responsibility does the Brazilian state have to sustain the lives it spared?

Representatives from UNHCR acknowledged the elderly refugee caseload posed an “unexpected challenge,” a senior agent disclosed, and “a real durable solution for them” was still being explored (Interview, June 23, 2010). The country's social economic nets were not readily available to them, because they had no work history in Brazil and had not contributed to Social Security or a pension. Accessing other social programs was contingent upon being Brazilian born or a naturalized citizen, such as the federal program for elderly and disabled persons with limited income, Beneficio de Prestaçào Continuada de Assistència Social (BPC-LOAS). This program, similar to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in the United States, does not require prior contribution and “guarantees a minimum monthly salary to a disabled and/or elderly person who can prove not to be self-sufficient or have family support” (BPC). Regardless of the vulnerable and precarious conditions in which migrants might find themselves, however, government assistance is denied - even if the policy runs contrary to the constitutional guarantee of equality between nationals and foreigners stipulated in Article 5: "All are equal before the law, without distinction of any kind, guaranteeing to Brazilians and foreigners residing in the country the inviolable right to life, liberty, equality, security and property” (Lei 9474/97).

The elderly & zones of diasporic isolation

It was clear there was no precedent or structure in place for resettling the elderly and ill, who were referred to as vulnerable cases. As one senior UNHCR resettlement agent in Brasilia noted:

Brazil was not used to the fact that elders would be without families. Some elders came by themselves and that’s a challenge that we have been working on with the communities and CONARE... Because it’s one thing to help the elder and to identify the social services for them, but the problem is when you have no family support, it’s almost impossible to find a solution.

(Carol, UNHCR Brazil representative. Interview.

June 23, 2010)

Here a neoliberal logic is attached to Foucault’s concept of governmentality, revealing the processes by which populations, specifically elderly Palestinian refugees, were managed in Brazil. Where self-care and self-sufficiency prove difficult, the family is to become accountable for social risks. The resettlement agent indicated that the Brazilian nation-state, through its social policies, removes the responsibility of care from its domain and obligates families for that care. Foucault traces the medicalization of the family beginning in the eighteenth century (1980, 172-175). He posits that children’s health and wellness became a central objective of the family during this period in order to ensure their survival to adulthood.

The family is no longer to be just a system of relations inscribed in a social status, a kinship system, a mechanism for the transmission of property. It is to become a dense, saturated, permanent, continuous physical environment which envelops, maintains and develops the child’s body.

(1980, 172)

The move toward medicalization was intended to secure the utility of the eventual adult in economic processes and to ensure the family bore the “moral” and financial responsibility for medical care (Ibid, 174). By extending Foucault’s analysis, one can see how the “medicalization of the family” is compatible with the neoliberal state. Where children become the focus for the benefit of the larger economy, those children as adults would assume responsibility for their aged and/or infirm parents - an investment in care in a young body yields a return investment in the care of an aging and/or ill body. This idea is codified in Brazilian law and reinforced by nongovernmental institutions.8 In the absence of families, the tenuous condition of protections offered by the state become pronounced.

Four elderly men who arrived in Sao Paulo without family members were placed in a nursing home. Within days of being there, they demanded their own homes. A fiercely independent 65-year-old (who presented as much older), Faris, resented the regimented guidelines of the facility and thought the very idea of being there was an affront to his personhood. He perceived it to be a place for those who could not govern themselves. Furthermore, he had lived in a confined and policed refugee camp for nearly five years and resisted any semblance of spatial confinement. Being unable to eat when he wanted to or cook his own meals, something he took great pleasure in, aggravated the situation. The UNHCR representative, however, referred to this as a “cultural” issue.

Culturally speaking, they did not accept to be there. They wanted to be independent, with their own places, their own houses. Although we tried to have them in a place where they would receive care, culturally [original emphasis] it was not accepted.

  • (Carol, UNHCR representative. Interview, June
  • 23,2010)

To make sense of their resistance to being placed in a nursing home, the agent attributed the elders' discontent to cultural differences, instead of a resistance to institutionalization as such. Autonomy, in different scales, is a ubiquitous theme in the theater of elderly life and one that is not indicative of the refugees’ “culture.” For Faris it was about being treated “fairly” and “with dignity” as he put it.

Of the four elderly men, three were able to leave the nursing home and were granted their own apartments. The fourth, Sami, was deemed by UNHCR incapable of living independently because he was said to display signs of dementia. Sami was 68 years old when he arrived in Brazil. He was one of few resettled Iraq War refugees actually born in Palestine. His family was dispossessed from Haifa in 1948 and given refuge in Iraq, where he lived until being displaced by the US incursion in 2003. He had never had a formal education, had never been married, and worked as a farmhand for the better part of his life.

While living in the nursing home, Sami ran away several times. Each time he found his way to the local mosque a few miles away and claimed he did not want to return. He felt isolated since he did not speak Portuguese and had no one with whom to communicate. The people with whom Sami lived in the nursing home thought he was clever and understood and learned quickly, but claimed they were the ones who could not understand him. JC, one of the residents there said, “I felt very sorry for him because he had problems with the food here.” Pointing to a mulberry tree a few meters away, he indicated Sami would eat the unripe fnut from it to quell his hunger.

In a phone call (December 19, 2010) with the nursing home director to get her perspective on Sami’s stay there, she immediately invoked a nationalist discourse regarding the resettled refugees generally and later condemned the government for allowing it. “They demanded much more than they deserved...Sami received more assistance than the Brazilians who are in the nursing home.” The director quickly erected an “Us” versus “Them” framework that hinged on “worthiness.” Ana Ramos-Zayas deploys the concept of the “politics of worthiness” to capture the insistence that Puerto Ricans, especially the poor, “prove their deservingness of US citizenship in order to be legitimately entitled to civil rights and social benefits that other...populations can assume as inalienable” (2004, 35). She reminds us of the hierarchies of citizenship and the scales of social and political disenfranchisement of racialized others. Although the refugees certainly were not citizens, they were expected to prove they were worthy of social benefits. However, their worthiness could not compete with the deserving and imagined Brazilian nationals themselves.

The director claimed, “Sami went on hunger strikes many times, principally after visiting with other refugees. He did not have preferential treatment at the home. He ought to eat everything the others ate”. “Did that mean pork too, which was religiously forbidden?” I asked. She responded, "they don’t even cook that meat in there.” However, Sheikh Hamdi, the imam from the mosque, thought this was not true since Sami would often ask him to pray over religious transgressions, for which the imam believed eating pork was one.

The director concluded our conversation by saying, “these resettled [people] received far more than Brazilians themselves. I do not agree with the government, which granted more to the refugees than to nationals. This is not something Brazilian.” The director’s nationalist discourse suggested that in providing what she perceived as more (more financial assistance, more benefits, more general support) to the Palestinian refugees, the state was guilty of denying resources to its legitimate “deserving” citizenry. This was not only a betrayal but also an affront to the very meaning of Brazilianness. This is similar to the current discourse deployed by US government officials to deny assistance to poor migrants because it comes at the expense of tax-paying, worthy citizens.

Without knowing the origin of the funds for the refugees more broadly, nor the origin of funds for Sami’s stay in the nursing home specifically, and despite the wide socioeconomic divisions between the rich and poor in Brazil, the director “imagined” a unified nation undermined by unworthy outsiders. This brings to the foreground what Benedict Andersen writes in Imagined Communities, “[the nation] is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship” (2006 [1983], 7). In this case, it is not clear whether the director “always” conceived of Brazil this way, but she used this imaginary to chastise those she assumed provided more benefits to Sami, and refugees, over Brazilian citizens.

Sami stayed in the nursing home just about a year. The social isolation he experienced was evident. After several attempts to run away and insisting on not wanting to be there anymore, a legal activist got involved in his case and removed him from the home, claiming Sami was forcibly held captive. He left Sao Paulo altogether and went to Brasilia. There he met four other Palestinian refugees (three of whom were elderly men who had been in the same nursing home with him), who were camped out in front of UNHCR. All claimed they were not able to integrate into Brazilian society, had been neglected healthcare, and demanded to be resettled in another country because Brazil was not able to ensure their rights to adequate medical care.

Their bodies/their protests

The space outside UNHCR headquarters became an ongoing site of protest. UNHCR (by way of Caritas) suspended all assistance to those protesting in Brasilia. They claimed the refugees had willingly left their cities of resettlement and therefore abandoned the resettlement program. Now they would no longer be entitled to any of the monthly assistance previously provided by the UN agency. Meanwhile, the refugees claimed the program, by not providing adequate services and necessary medical care, had in fact abandoned them. Despite the suspension of funds, the refugees asserted continued their protests.9 They fortified their encampment in front of UNHCR with tents and even an improvised stove, where Faris would often cook.

The resettlement coordinator from ASAV, Cristina, reflected on the comedictragedy of the situation: “No, it was fantastic. We would get there and there was

Faris, cutting onions on the ground. They would make it there, fried onions with bread.” The UNHCR office was located in a rented house in an upper-middle-class suburb of Brasilia’s Federal District, Lago Sul. The neighbors on the block found only tragedy in the predicament. While visiting the site where the protest had been, a woman who lived across the street from the encampment recounted:

They stayed almost one year. By then there were only three here, but in a ghastly condition. Here we could not even walk, it seemed like it was their home...We were scared. To come here to talk to the neighbor, I came by car...because I did not have the courage to walk through here. They were living here with filth.. .And they were evil-looking. It was a horror. A horror! It was just a movement to make some demands. But the thing dragged on.

(Marta. Interview. June 24, 2010)

The neighbor made what appeared to be a layered observation when she likened the manner in which the protestors occupied the public sidewalk in this upper-class neighborhood as being comparable to being in “their [own] home.” On the one hand, the political nature of the protest was hollowed out of her assessment and cast into the private domestic sphere. On the other, the protestors were co-opting space that was not theirs and which was geared toward a specific, more agreeable, more [socioeconomically] deserving “public.” Moreover, Marta’s description of the protest site as being filthy and simultaneously appearing “like it was their home,” not only made an assessment about how the refugees would have lived in a home, but also attributes a certain comfort to their situation of being home-less.

Despite citing fear, indicative of a broad and common Orientalist trope, when asked if she or anyone else had ever been threatened in any way, Marta explained, “Threatened, no. But it was constraining...a person who does not speak the language, is not well perceived, and they knew they were not...A degrading, disgusting situation...One year with such a situation!” For the people who lived on the block, the camped-out refugees were unsightly and troubled the suburban landscape and sound-scape. They even transformed the usual odors emanating from the neighborhood by cooking food outdoors. They thus managed to significantly reconfigure the space they occupied, which was an affront to the neighborhood’s class sensibilities. There was a clear and growing tension between the refugees seeking visibility and their unsightliness as perceived by the neighborhood residents.

As the protest continued, the refugees' bodies were seen as excess: excessively old, idle, “evil looking,” demanding, needy, and therefore ultimately undesirable. They were at once confined by and spilling over their own corporeality. Moreover, the neighbor characterized the people in the encampment through essentialist ideas of Arabness and Muslimness, animated by Orientalist trappings of cultural others. To her these were indicators of what she considered as the refugees’ stubborn disposition and irrational demands and behavior. As such, Marta thought the refugees should have been left in the desert camp where they had been before coming to Brazil.

Judicializing claims

While still in protest, the refugees began to explore ways in which they could have their monthly assistance reinstated. They began a process to judicialize "the right to health” and rights to social benefits. It was a means to make themselves legible to the state and hold it accountable for rights codified in federal law. Judicializing claims allowed the refugees to engage in practices of citizenship by using the state’s instruments on their behalf and point to incongruencies in the state’s legal body. Despite UNHCR being considered a UN “Specialized Agency,” with “privileges and immunities,” over which state courts have no jurisdiction, given that the resettlement program in Brazil is a tripartite pact, which also involves the Brazilian state, via CONARE, the attorney who represented the Palestinian refugees continued to file petitions requesting an investigation. This together with the media attention the refugees were garnering for their protest ensured broader awareness of the situation.

While the Attorney General had no jurisdiction over UNHCR, she made firm recommendations to the head of CONARE to reinstate the refugees’ monthly assistance and based her finding on the responsibility the Brazilian government had for the “human rights” of refugees as codified in Federal Law 9474/97, Estatuto dos Refugiados.10 After months of deliberation, UNHCR made an official commitment to reinstate monthly stipends. By then a lot had changed for the elderly protestors. The three remaining were forcibly removed from their encampment. Marta, the neighbor, recounted the events.

[The Police] came at 6 in the morning on a Saturday. It was horrible. It was sad. Even though I wanted them gone, I was very upset. I couldn't even sleep. It was something really bad, you know? Because it was not how we wanted it to be resolved. It really was by force. But there wasn’t a solution. It was what needed to be done. It was affecting our community here, right?

(Marta. Interview. June 24, 2010)

A judge ordered their removal and claimed the encampment was a health and environmental hazard and posed a risk to the residents. While the refugees were judicializing their rights, so were the elite neighbors. An armed military guard remained on the street for nearly three weeks to ensure the protestors would not return. By then the UNHCR office had moved to an undisclosed location.

Meanwhile, the refugees decided to take their protest to a site where they would have more visibility. They protested in front of the Ministry of Foreign Relations (Itamaraty). Although they were few in number,11 they “refused invisibility” and worked diligently to center their presence by demonstrating in a highly visible political site. In “Refusing Invisibility” (2008), Ilana Feldman mines the artifacts of visibility through which Palestinians articulate themselves and make claims, such as the use of Palestinian flags. She argues, "to see one was to be forced to recognize the presence of not simply ‘Arabs’ but ‘Palestinians’” (2008, 504). The refugees used the Palestinian flag as a visual marker to make claims for what they were being denied. Together with their elderly bodies, this symbol also produced a particular temporality of refugeeness since the protracted status of Palestinian refugees was etched on their aged, material bodies.12

One of the refugees who had been consistently in protest and had spent the latter part of his 30s in the desert camp was eager to start his life anew in Brazil. Rawi was very critical of the resettlement program and the UN Refugee Agency. He explained UNHCR’s role this way: “They are rich people. They are the merchants and we are the goods. They are living the high life and we cannot live” (Interview. July 13,2010). He thought the program was poorly executed and was a program only in name. His hopes were especially dashed when he realized there were not many job opportunities, nor a workforce integration component in the resettlement. Rawi was clearly conscious of class dynamics between personnel who administered the program and refugees who received services. In managing the program and refugees, UNHCR persomiel earned significant salaries, whereas refugees earned a meager monthly stipend not equivalent to a living wage. Moreover, Rawi’s analysis encompassed a broader critique of humanitarianism itself, where a lucrative economy is built on the ruins of lives. He reflected, "Here in (Brazil) it is too difficult. The old people, they cannot work, and they have no money to spend. So, what will they do? This is the big question.” At this point the refugees in Brasilia wanted to leave the country and after more than a year, the protests phased out. One elder died of pneumonia, which prompted UNHCR to consider re-resettlement for the remaining three.

The three suggested being placed back into a camp. They thought by going back into a refugee camp there would be improved prospects for placement somewhere offering better living conditions for the elderly than in Brazil. At the very least, they thought it would be better if they were in a predominantly Arabic-speaking country, even if this meant dealing with the dismal, precarious conditions in camps. Space anthropologist Julie Peteet claims refugee camps are contradictory spaces. They can be desperate places with wretched living conditions, but they “could be places where possibilities for the future emerged, took shape, and were acted upon” (Peteet 2005, 131). In other words, camps are not envisioned as final destinations but as transitional places where hope for a better life and future could be cultivated through creative organizing and political action. For the elderly protestors, even the encampment in Brasilia could be seen through this lens. It provided them with a sense of new possibilities in what they otherwise perceived as a hopeless situation. Therefore, going back into a refugee camp, despite the inevitable precarious conditions, signified hope and potential.

The case the elderly Palestinian Iraq War refugees brought to the judiciary also underscored the lack of accountability of the Brazilian state and the necessity for its active engagement. This became even more evident when UNHCR Brazil did in fact attempt to gain permission to place the refugees back into an outpost on the border of Syria and Iraq. The Syrian government denied the request, which, on the eve of what was to become Syria’s enduring Civil War, proved reasonable. The elderly men remained in Brasilia, receiving monthly assistance from UNHCR indefinitely as vulnerable cases.

By examining the fault lines in Brazil’s healthcare and social benefits programs, as they relate to elderly and ill refugees, the uneven access to state programs between nationals and non-nationals becomes visible. They demonstrate the discrepancies between granting resettlement and the viability of integrating refugees into local society. The refugees in making demands, claiming rights, and staging scenes of dissensus, asserted themselves as political subjects, performed citizenship and pushed back on what James Holston calls “ideologies and conventions of inclusion” in Brazilian society (2008, 284). These discourses that purport “universally inclusive membership” are not only ruptured at the level of the individual, but the state itself unravels the very discourses it seeks to advance by pointing to the limits it has created and codified in law. In navigating and contesting the multi-tentacled systems of the state where they were erased because of their non-citizen status, the refugees with their aging and sick bodies etched themselves into visibility and contested the Brazilian nativist-nationalism tightly woven into the fabric of the judiciary.

On categories

By December 2018, a total of 80,057 people had applied for asylum in Brazil. The highest number to date. Despite establishing in 1997 the first comprehensive refugee law in South America, its geographic size, and still touted mythology of harmonious plurality, until then, there had been just over 11,200 people recognized as refugees by the country’s national refugee committee, CONARE. But on December 5, 2019, even with his animus toward migrants, calling refugees "the scum of the earth”13 before becoming president and pulling Brazil from the UN Migration Accord, Bolsonaro’s administration agreed to recognize 21,000 Venezuelan asylum seekers as refugees - nearly tripling in a single day the previous number (Muñoz and Broner 2019).14 Why this disjuncture from the man who has been dubbed “Tramp of the Tropics”? The vast majority of the funding for this endeavor is from the US government, which has provided more than a quarter billion dollars in aid to countries giving refuge to sizable numbers of Venezuelan asylum-seekers, such as Brazil, Colombia, and Pera (USAID).15 The demographics of the refugees in Brazil still haven’t been fully disclosed, but many had been living in precarious encampments in the border city of Pacaraima in the country’s northernmost state of Roraima, with food insecurity and health concerns. Given the tenuous social benefits infrastructure I outline above, it is uncertain how the newcomers will fair in accessing medical and other services -especially those who are elderly and/or ailing. Nonetheless, Brazil's response stands in stark distinction from that of the United States with asylum seekers on its southern border. What is notable too is while the United States has provided millions in aid to countries housing Venezuelans in Latin America, it has repeatedly denied them entry into its own territory. Nazanin Ash from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) highlighted the contradiction. "Here you have the administration standing with Venezuelans seeking freedom - and banning them from seeking that freedom in the United States” (Holpuch 2019). This could be

Migration and the aging body 251 seen as a strategy for the Tramp administration to support displaced Venezuelans by proxy without giving them refuge, especially given its response to migrants from Latin America petitioning for asylum and now implementing a “wealth test” as a rubric to determine who is qualified to remain in the country. However, this new established assessment that makes permanent residency in the United States conditioned by financial solvency, age, health, education, and skills is said to exempt certain “classes of immigrants,” such as refugees (USCIS).16 This underscores the importance of the naming conventions that categorize people in flux. In the United States, migrants or economic migrants (documented or undocumented) as a designation, especially for Central Americans, has been used even for those who meet the criteria for refugee status (Menjivar & Abrego 2012). For instance, Salvadorans who fled a civil war in the 1980s largely fomented by the United States’ political and material support of a military regime, were granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) instead of political asylum (Abrego 2014, 13-15). TPS does not offer a path to permanent residency and must be renewed every 18 months. The precarity of this status was revealed in 2018 when the Tramp administration vowed not to renew TPS for over 300,000 people effective September 2019, impacting nearly 200,000 Salvadorans.17 Refugees, however, have alleged protections by institutions of global governance. But as I have shown, these protections are futile when national policies, such as Brazil’s, disproportionately impact impoverished elderly refugees and are carefully implemented to distinguish between desirable and undesirable groups, such as in the United States.


The latest report (June 2019) on global forced displacement released by UNHCR reveals 70.8 million people had been displaced worldwide,18 an over 2 million increase from the previous year. Of these, approximately 10 percent are elderly with special needs. The two most commonly referenced challenges that the aged and infirm encounter in displacement is access to healthcare and public support structures. Although this is a looming issue, it is often elided in migration studies. Instead, refugee camps, for instance, are often places depicted by scurrying youth with bodily vigor, filled with potentiality and futurity. However, in a moment of continued mass forced migration, these representations are not consistent, and perhaps never have been, with the reality of those who cross or are forced to cross borders. As I have demonstrated in the case study of elderly Palestinian Iraq War refugees in Brazil, while enshrined in humanitarian logics, selection processes and resettlement operate within a neoliberal framework of self-reliance. The ability to “carry their own weight” has long been a means to evaluate refugees and immigrants alike. These practices align with current measures by far-right leaders to deter border crossings and overhaul immigration systems, even if a nation-state, like the United States, has had a significant hand in displacing millions through direct military action and foreign policy. Because of this, a deeper examination of how the elderly and infirm factor in human mobilities andemplacement must be undertaken to address the lacuna in research. This would yield a more robust understanding of the dynamics and challenges in experiences of migration.


  • 1 The groundwork for the accord was drafted at the seventieth UN General Assembly in September 2016 and titled The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. The finalized accord is titled The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM). See:
  • 2 The full August announcement is available in the Federal Register and can be accessed here:
  • 3 New York, California, and Washington. See: 76154/n-y-judge-blocks-trump-administrations-public-charge-rule. Trump signed a proclamation in early October 2019, barring immigrants who cannot prove they will have healthcare coverage or the ability to pay for it within 30 days of arriving in the country. See: ion-suspension-entry-immigrants-will-financially-burden-united-states-healthcare -system/
  • 4 An individual will be considered a public charge if she is likely to receive assistance such as food stamps, public housing assistance, and Medicaid for longer than 12 out of a 36-month stretch. See Department of Homeland Security v. New York, case 19A785: /19a785.html.
  • 5 On its website, USCIS includes these as factors in how determinations will be made.



  • 6 When the refugees entered the country, Brazilian law required that they live in the country for six years before qualifying for permanent residency and an additional four years before obtaining citizenship.
  • 7 Providing healthcare was codified into law in the post-dictatorship constitution of 1988. It was considered part of the country’s democratizing process.
  • 8 Estatuto do Idoso/ The Statute on the Elderly passed in 2003 (Law 10.741). It defines the rights of the elderly and the obligations of the state, community, and principally the family to meet their needs. It stipulates “moral or material abandonment on the part of a family” of an elderly relative could be reported to the Public Ministries, and those accused face charges and prosecution. The full text of this federal law can be found here:
  • 9 The refugees received assistance for food and/or materials for their encampment from organized collectivities, such as Instituto Autonomía, Movimento Democracia Direta (MDD), some individual members of Palestinian organizations in Brazil, such as Federa$áo Árabe Palestina (FEPAL), the mosque in Brasilia, as well as from independent actors and individuals in the local Arab community. This was how they were able to subsist while UNHCR refused to grant them refugees their assistance checks.
  • 10 For the full text of the law, see:
  • 11 Other refugees who had been part of the same group from Iraq, would at different moments come to Brasilia and join the protests, both when the older refugees were camped out in front of UNHCR in Lago Sul and when they were in Itamaraty. They too had grievances about the resettlement program.
  • 12 Palestinians are considered the most protracted refugee situation in modern history and today constitute over 5 million people registered with the UN agency UNRWA in over 58 refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria.
  • 13 “Who is Jair Bolsonaro? Brazil’s far right president in his own words,” The Guardian, October 29, 2018. Accessed January 28, 2020. /2018/sep/06/jair-bolsonaro-brazil-tropical-trump-who-hankers-for-days-of-dictator ship
  • 14 Cesar Munoz and Tamara Boner, “Brazil Grants Asylum to 21,000 Venezuelans in a Single Day,” HRW December 6, 2019. Accessed January 31, 2020. https://www.lirw .org/news/2019/12/06/brazil-grants-asylum-21 OOO-venezuelans-single-day#.
  • 15 “United States Provides Additional Humanitarian Aid to Venezuelans Who Have Fled the Country,” USAID April 10, 2019. Accessed January 30, 2020. https://www.usaid .gov/news-information/press-releases/apr-10-2019-united-states-provides-additional-humanitarian-aid-venezuelans-who-fled-country
  • 16 According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Sendees (USCIS), “Congress has exempted certain classes of immigrants from the public charge ground of inadmissibility.” See:
  • 17 The termination of TPS is being challenged in court and has therefore been extended for Salvadorans until January 4, 2021. See'tempo rary-protected-status
  • 18 See:

Works cited

Abrego, Leisy J. 2014. Sacrificing Families: Navigating Laws, Labor, and Love Across Borders. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Anderson, Benedict. 2006 (1983). Lmagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso.

Beneficio Assistencial ao Idoso e á Pessoa com Deficiencia (BPC). Accessed January 13, 2020.

Featherstone, Mike and Mike Hepworth. 1991. “The Mask of Ageing and the Postmodern Life Course.” In The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory. Eds. Mike Featherstone, Mike Hepworth and Bryan Turner. London: Sage Publications.

Feldman, Ilana. 2008. “Refusing Invisibility: Documentation and Memorialization in Palestinian Refugee Claims.” Journal of Refugee Studies 21(4): 498-516.

Foucault, Michel. 1980. Power/Knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books.

Holpuch, Amanda. 2019. “Trump Administration Denies Special Help to Venezuelans Seeking Asylum.” The Guardian. May 5. Accessed January 31, 2020: https://www nistration-us

Lei 9474/97 e Coletánia de Instrumentos de Protecáo Internacional dos Refugiados. 2005. Brasilia, DF: UNHCR'ACNUR (A Agencia da ONU para os Refugiados).

Lei 10.741 Estatuto do Idoso/ The Statute on the Elderly.

Londoño, Ernesto. 2019. “Bolsonaro Pulls Brazil from UN Migration Accord.” New York Times. January 9. Accessed September 19, 2019. /09/world/americas/bolsonaro-brazil-migration-accord.html

Menjivar, Cecilia and Leisy Abrego. 2012. “Legal Violence: Immigration Law and the Lives of Central American Immigrants.” American Journal of Sociology 117(5): 1880-1421.

Muñoz, Cesar and Tamara Boner. 2019. “Brazil Grants Asylum to 21,000 Venezuelans in a Single Day.” HRW. December 6. Accessed January 31, 2020. news/2019/12/06/brazil-grants-asylum-21 OOO-venezuelans-single-day#.

Ong, Aihwa. 2006. Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations tn Citizenship and Sovereignty. Durham: Duke University Press.

Peteet, Julie Marie. 2005. Landscapes of Hope and Despair: Palestinian Refugee Camps. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Ramos-Zayas, Ana Y. 2004. “Delinquent Citizenship, National Performances: Racialization, Surveillance, and the Politics of ‘Worthiness’ in Puerto Rican Chicago.” Latino Studies 2: 26-44.

UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency. 2019. Global Trends on Forced Displacement. Accessed September 18, 2019.'ph/figures-at-a-glance

USAID. 2019. “United States Provides Additional Humanitarian Aid to Venezuelans Who Have Fled the Country.” April 10. Accessed January 30, 2020. https://www.usaid.go v/news-information/press-releases/apr-10-2019-united-states-provides-additional-humanitarian-aid-venezuelans-who-fled-country

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 2020. Final Rule on Public Charge Grounds of Inadmissibility’. Accessed January 28, 2020. final-rule-public-charge-ground-inadmissibility

Wamsley, Laurel, Pam Fessler and Richard Gonzales. 2019. “Federal Judges in 3 States Block Trump’s ‘Public Charge’ Rule for Green Card.” NPR. October 19. Accessed January 28, 2020. ump-administrations-public-charge-rule

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