Internal Displacement in Brazil: An Inconvenient Truth?

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As Brazil works to project the image of a nation that is effectively addressing security challenges in its major cities, one important indicator — internal displacement — is being overlooked. 

That is the conclusion of a new working paper (pdf) by Humanitarian Action in Situations Other than War (HASOW)*, which will be published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Refugee Studies this fall.

Author Robert Muggah, director of Brazilian research center the Igarapé Institute, says that despite having fairly strong legislation to address the situation of refugees from other countries, Brazil has failed to deal with forced internal displacement, which Muggah considers to be a “humanitarian crisis within its borders.”

Brazil lacks any official taxonomy of internal displacement, and the few measures that are in place are largely aimed at helping populations that have already been displaced, rather than preventing displacement from occurring, he adds.

The report outlines three categories of displacement: violence-induced, development-induced and disaster-induced.

Forced movement as a result of violence in Brazil includes displacement by both gangs and militias — groups that arose as paramilitary forces involving municipal police and later moved into criminal activity — as well as by the security forces. Actions by criminal groups can lead to long-term and inter-city displacement, while police and army operations generally produce shorter-term forms of displacement within a city.

SEE ALSO: Brazil News and Profiles

In Brazil’s favelas, Muggah finds that displacement usually occurs on a family or individual basis rather than en masse.

However, displacement of larger groups may be occurring in some communities under militia control, as militias push people out of their homes with the intent of selling them, according to Muggah. He cites unverified reports of militias helping displace residents of newly pacified areas in Rio de Janeiro, on behalf of politicians and business owners.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Displacement

Displacement caused by violence in Brazil’s urban areas is hidden, with media, policy and academic circles remaining relatively silent on the phenomenon, Muggah told InSight Crime. The information on displacement remains largely anecdotal, appearing spottily in news reports and accounts by on-the-ground aid workers.

InSight Crime Analysis 

There are a number of factors that make displacement invisible, for Muggah. First, the fact that displacement is not understood as a discrete social category in Brazil. Because of this, there is a lack of systems to register complaints, or support victims. This extends beyond the Brazilian context — throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, the term “internal displacement” is generally applied only in situations of armed conflict.

Second, there is a lack of information on the scale of displacement, as forced population movements in gang-controlled areas of Brazilian cities are often “temporary, transient and episodic,” Muggah told InSight Crime. Rather than entire communities being pushed off their land, families or individuals may move because they are unable to pay exorbitant extortion fees or have been directly threatened or harassed by the gangs. Unlike victims in places like the Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala), victims are less likely to move far from their homes, he said.  

Third, there is what Muggah refers to as the “law of silence” — residents’ fear of speaking of the violence they are experiencing, or the displacement it has triggered, because of possible repercussions. 

However, the failure of authorities to address the problem of displacement in Brazil goes beyond an inability to get a grip on the numbers. As InSight Crime has noted, internal displacement is troublesome for governments, as it runs contrary to the image they want to project of being in control of security. This has led to authorities in places like Mexico largely ignoring the phenomenon.

As Brazil attempts to position itself as a progressive nation cleaning up its cities ahead of events like the recent World Cup, it is entirely possible that internal displacement is simply an inconvenient truth. 

“By ‘naming’ an issue, there is by implication an obligation to respond,” Muggah told InSight Crime. Despite the epidemic violence perpetrated by criminal actors in certain cities, which for some local officials has reached the scale of an armed conflict, the central government is not keen to recognize a displaced population that belies its positive security narrative.

Brazil’s principal cities are home to powerful armed gangs, such as the Red Command (CV) in Rio and the First Capital Command (PCC) in São Paulo. These gangs exert a great deal of social control in the zones where they operate, acting as a kind of de facto justice system with a private army ready and able to impose a death sentence on those who disobey them.

In addition to engaging in drug sales and trafficking, they recruit young children into their ranks and carry out extortion. Some people flee to avoid punishment from the gangs, while others are displaced — either temporarily or permanently — by inter-gang violence. 

Meanwhile, Rio’s police-run militias enact a similar kind of vigilante justice as the gangs, exacting taxes on housing unit residents for basic utilities and protection. As Muggah notes, they have been known to displace residents in order to sell or rent out their apartments.

Efforts by authorities to push back against the gangs and militias have had limited success. Despite the government’s ongoing pacification program in Rio de Janeiro — which aimed to retake control of the city’s favelas from the drug gangs — a report released in late 2013 found that 454, or nearly half, of the city’s estimated 1,001 favelas were still under militia control.

While the city’s overall homicide rate is down significantly since the beginning of the pacification program, violent crime continues to be rampant in many areas, murders remain high on the outskirts of the city, and there are signs the gangs are returning to some pacified favelas. It is unknown to what extent the movement of gangs as a result of pacification may have caused displacement.

As Muggah notes, police operations have at times added to the violence — a 2007 police security offensive against Rio gangs was described by media as being “like Baghdad.”

While the most publicized cases have occurred in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Muggah said that urban displacement as a result of gang violence was also taking place in a number of smaller cities, including Fortaleza, João Pessoa, Maceio, Recife and San Salvador.

“These are some of the most violent cities on the planet, and we are seeing corresponding increases in voluntary and involuntary population movement,” said Muggah.

The scenario bears a resemblance to urban areas in the Northern Triangle countries of Central America, or Medellin, Colombia, where drug gangs extort locals, engage in violent clashes, and exercise an oppressive form of social control.

Intra- and inter-urban displacement is largely hidden, or at least significantly underreported in all these settings, but, for Muggah, the silence around displacement in Brazil is even more extreme.

*HASOW is supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC)

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