Protection and vulnerability in urban contexts: the case of refugees in Rio de Janeiro

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Part of the “humanitarian landscape” of cities in the Global South is increasingly marked by the presence of people internationally displaced by conflict and/or by massive violation of human rights. The paper aims at describing the current landscape of humanitarian protection afforded to refugees in Brazil, and particularly in Rio de Janeiro. It sheds light into an area of humanitarian protection that has received scarce, although growing, attention in both policy and academic debates in Brazil and Rio de Janeiro.

Residing mostly in impoverished and violent areas at the outskirts of Rio, refugees and asylum seekers are faced with great vulnerabilities and with dire integration challenges. In order to understand the current landscape of humanitarian protection afforded to refugees in Brazil and in Rio, the article is organized in three sections. The first section describes the historical and normative aspects of refugee protection at the international and regional levels, from the first attempts to regulate State’s responsibilities towards refugees in the aftermath of two World Wars to the current regime inaugurated in the second half of the twentieth century. These processes were characterized by the active involvement and participation of the United Nations, particularly with the creation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as well as through a growing articulation of states in regional fora, with Latin America being an important illustration. The second section discusses the emergence of a national legal and institutional structure for the protection of refugees in Brazil, describing the historical ebb-and-flow processes and the procedures and policies in place regarding spontaneous and resettled refugees. The third section analyzes the profile and living conditions of refugee populations currently residing in the Province and city of Rio de Janeiro, according to data obtained from official sources in 2010. It presents some of the main problems and difficulties regarding the protection and integration of refugees, gathered from interviews and informal conversations with both refugees and governmental and non-governmental groups working with the issue in Rio de Janeiro. The article concludes with a brief discussion of initiatives regarding the protection of refugees in Rio in the hope that increased visibility of the humanitarian problems faced by refugees and asylum-seekers may prove to be an important step in terms of thinking collectively about possible solutions.