CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1International travel restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide have exacerbated and deepened securitization trends in the global migration regime. As a result, the most vulnerable groups of mobile subjects were the most impacted: asylum seekers, forcibly displaced persons, refugees, and undocumented migrants (Martin and Bergman, 2021; Mukumbang et al., 2020). Ghezelbash and Tan (2020) suggested that these measures effectively extinguished the right to seek asylum in the early months of 2020 and disabled the international principle of non-refoulement. It seems that restrictions on international mobility thus reinforced already existing politics of non-entrée (Hathaway and Gammeltoft-Hansen, 2015; Orchard, 2014), mass detention (Arbel and Joeck, 2021; Agier, 2020), and securitization of border control (Dimari, 2021; Triandafyllidou, 2020).

2In South America, until the beginning of the 2010s, predominated a border regime based on multilateral agreements for intraregional migrants, targeting “irregular migration” as an issue to be solved. As a result, national and regional migration policies have been created through an interplay between human rights and state national security aiming to promote a “safe, orderly, and regular migration” (Domenech, 2007, 2013, 2015, 2020 and 2021; Granja and Villarreal, 2017; Acosta, 2018; Fernandes, 2019; Acosta and Brumat, 2020). However, since the mid-2010s the migration and border regime has changed dramatically due to an unprecedented Venezuelan migration to many countries in the Americas, a growing influx of people coming from the Caribbean, African, and Middle East countries, and securitization of migration control imposed by right and far-right wings governments. Thus, the criminalization of migrants, the militarization of borders, the production of migrant “illegality”, and deportations led to a contradictory migration border regime moving between humanitarian and securitization practices (Domenech, 2020 and 2021; Espinoza et al. 2020; Zapata and Rosas, 2020; Dias and Domenech, 2020; Trabalón, 2021; Brumat and Finn, 2021). So, the pandemic has arrived in South America in a period of growing restrictions on migration, accelerating some of them, but also creating new discourses of control based on sanitary reasons (cf. (In)Movilidad en las Américas; [1] Machado, 2020; Herrera, 2020; Velasco, 2020; Garriga-López et al., 2021; Machado and Vasconcelos, 2021).

3In Brazil, we can identify both a connection to the continent scenario, but also a very particular border and migration regime. On the one hand, there are several initiatives praised nationally and internationally, such as the implementation of a new Migration Law in 2017, that consolidated the human rights lens and rejected previous legislation based on national security issues; promotion of regularization for Haitians and Syrians; prima facie recognition of refugee status for thousands of Venezuelans, and structuring of humanitarian response for more than 270,000 of Venezuelans that have entered since January 2017 (IOM, 2021). On the other hand, executive normative acts, published in 2019, recuperated the rhetoric of migrants as a threat to national security and reintroduced a summary deportation instrument (Quintanilha, 2019; Ruseishvili and Chaves, 2020), promoted aggressions towards racialized Caribbean and African migrants (Fernandes, 2020) and stimulated a political mobilization of xenophobia towards the Venezuelans in Roraima (Leão, 2018).

4The peculiar migration and border regime enhanced in Brazil by international travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic (March 2020-October 2021) was a direct consequence of these previous contradictory patterns. For instance, after the government issued the first legal norm that interdicted cross-border circulation for Venezuelans in March 2020, it nevertheless maintained the “Operação Acolhida” (Operation Welcome) humanitarian operation in Roraima. We aim to show in this article that the legal response to the COVID-19 crisis did not suspend the established norms but rather enforced selective hypervigilance, placing under exception certain groups of migrants according to their migration status, length of stay, place of residence, and national origin.

5As Agamben (2007) and Mezzadra and Neilson (2013) point out, the regime of exception is installed not by a simple halt of the ordinary normative order but is rather produced through “saturation by competing norms and calculations that overlap and sometimes conflict in unpredictable but also negotiable ways” (Mezzadra and Neilson, 2013: 208). We argue that the proliferation of legal norms and their interpretations during the pandemic, based on a nativist perspective (Beltrán, 2020) [2] established a specific border regime that has created hierarchies and differences within the migrant population in the country, striking especially those who are considered less “desirable” by the government at the moment. As the pandemic produced a general sense of uncertainty, for certain groups of migrants, placed into the state of exception, it saturated everyday life with insecurity and uncertainty by producing a sense of deportability (De Genova, 2010).

6As Glick Schiller and Salazar (2013: 189) indicate, “the term ‘regime’ calls attention to the role both of individual states and of changing international regulatory and surveillance administrations that affect individual mobility.” Along these lines, as Dias and Domenech (2020: 42) expound, “migration and border regime refers to a space of conflict, negotiation, and contestation among various actors who dispute the political definition of migration and the border.” The migration regime does not manifest itself only at the edges and physical borders of national states but rather concerns different spaces and scales within national territories, resulting in socio-spatial differentiation of migration control. [3] In this way, the emphasis shifts from the physical border to the process of bordering (Hess and Kasparek, 2017). This space of contestation is located both in the institutional public sphere and in a series of “mobility infrastructures” (Jung and Buhr, 2021) that sustain or constrain mobile forms of life. Migration regimes, therefore, produce multiform infrastructures of, against, and beyond the State that go through a more humanitarian or a more securitarian border perspective (Meeus et al., 2019).

7The contradiction and the indeterminacy of legal norms and control practices are constitutive elements of the modern border regime because they aim to filter, select and channel migration movements, performing not a pure exclusion of migrants from the national order, but rather their “differential inclusion” (Espiritu, 2003; Mezzadra, 2014). In other words, the bordering process does not necessarily impact all migrants or localities in the same way, because the laws, ordinances, visas, refugee recognition criteria, and control enforcements operate to produce the (un)desirables, who will be put under greater surveillance.

8Finally, beyond marking a paradigm shift, the emergency of an exceptional migration regime during the COVID-19 crisis seems to reorganize the disputes that make up the “ordinary” Brazilian regime, reposition its main actors who dispute the meanings of “legal” and “desirable” migration, as well as produce new ways of being a migrant in Brazil.

9Regarding methodology, in this article, we seek to incorporate methodological nationalism critique (Glick Schiller and Wimmer, 2002; Anderson, 2019), by avoiding considering the migrant population in Brazil as a homogeneous group, defined by contrast with the “native” population. For this, we first identified the main difficulties pointed out by our migrant collaborators, whom we have been monitoring during the pandemic period, as a part of Sérgio Vieira de Mello Academic Chair in the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar). [4] Then we related their claims with quantitative data on the COVID crises impacts on migrant residents produced by Cavalcanti et al. (2020) and Fernandes and Baeninger (2020). Later, we explored elements that may approximate them to the sectors of the Brazilian society they are incorporated in. Nevertheless, we neither ignore migrants’ specificities, especially those produced by the State’s restrictive policies. It is exactly at this point that governmental restrictive measures created migrants’ exceptionality, directly linked to their migration status, national origin, and place of living in Brazil. We also point out that the social, economic, and psychological impacts of the pandemic on the migrants’ lives varied according to their network capital (Urry, 2007) and to the economic sector and the form of their employment.

10This text is divided into three sections: (i) a brief methodological note; (ii) an overview of Brazilian migration policy before the COVID-19 pandemic and legal governmental responses through the pandemic (March 2020-October 2021), regarding international migration; and (iii) discussion of the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on migrant populations in Brazil, divided into two sub-sections: economic impacts and effects of criminalization of the international mobility. We conclude by pointing out some legacies of the COVID emergency legislation, which negatively affect the rights of migrants in the country.

Materials and Methods

11We conducted an exploratory qualitative study in March and April 2021 through eight in-depth telephone interviews. All contacts were operated through the network formed around the Sérgio Vieira de Mello Academic Chair at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar). [5] The sample consisted of individuals in different migration situations, of different origins and duration of stay in Brazil (see Figure 1). We also held two expert interviews with representatives of civil society organizations working with migrants and refugees: a member of a religious organization in São Carlos, that participated in the governmental program for resettlement of Venezuelans from Roraima state, and the legal advisor of an important civil society organization for the reception and integration of migrants in São Paulo, the state’s capital.

Table : Participant’s characteristics

Figure 0

Table : Participant’s characteristics

* Boa Vista is a city of 419,000 inhabitants, located in the State of Roraima, in the North of Brazil. It is the capital of the Roraima State and since 2018 is a center of Operação Acolhida governmental program for reception of Venezuelan migrants, who come by the land route through the Venezuela/Brazil border between Venezuelan Santa Helena de Uairen and Brazilian Pacaraima. Pacaraima and Boa Vista are both localities marked by humanitarian infrastructure and are gateway cities, as they are simultaneously points-of-entry (from Venezuela) and points-of-exit (from Roraima to other Brazilian states) for migrants.
** Rio Claro is a city of 200,000 inhabitants, located in the State of São Paulo, 170 kilometers from the capital and sixty-five kilometers from São Carlos. From 2010 to 2020, 870 migrants from different origins were registered in the city, with a predominance of Haitians (446 individuals) (cf.

12The average duration of the interviews was thirty minutes. The interviews were structured to gather, at first, spontaneous narratives about the impacts of the pandemic on the everyday life of the subjects and their respective social networks. After that, the conversation was channelled to the specific issues: documentation and ways of migratory regularization, work, income, and economic situation, access to public health and other rights, and changes in the everyday practices related to being an international migrant in Brazil.

13Although the number of interviews is low and does not represent the whole situation in Brazil, they were important to identify some issues that became of concern to international migrants during the pandemic. We start from the idea that migrants and locals may experience similar difficulties in accessing social rights (Anderson, 2019). After mapping out the main issues that our interviewees reported (health, income, and documents), we tried to comprehend them in the general economic and public health indexes to see if migrants’ social conditions were different from the local population. For this, we used secondary sources as well as government reports and deportation data produced by the Federal Police. We also congregated and analyzed all the ordinances restricting international travels produced by the Brazilian government between March 2020 and October 2021.

14We aimed to understand if and to what extent legal restrictions of international mobility affected the lives of international migrants residing in Brazil, considering the length of their stay (newcomers versus residents), legal migration status, and place of residence (border zones versus non-gateway locations).

Migration Regime in Brazil before the COVID-19 Pandemic

15The COVID-19 pandemic and, consequently, the restrictive measures of the Brazilian Federal Government must be placed in the general context of the country’s migration regime, which was undergoing profound changes from the previous period, approximately 1990 until the early 2010s.

16By 2010, according to the Brazilian Census in 2010 (IBGE, 2010) the country had approximately 413,000 migrants, [6] many of whom came from the “Global North” countries such as the United States, Japan, and Italy. [7] Except migrants from the “North”, the largest migrant groups came from neighbouring countries, such as Bolivia, Paraguay, Colombia, and Argentina, and resided in the Metropolitan Region of São Paulo (Sales, 1996; Patarra and Baeninger, 2006) and some other cities located in the southern region of Brazil, such as Curitiba and Foz do Iguaçu (Paraná state) (Santos and Fernandes, 2014; Cardoso and Moura, 2013; Moura and Cardosa, 2017). [8]

17In a short period, this scenario changed both quantitatively and qualitatively. By 2017, the number of migrants was 1.2 million (OBMigra, 2019) dispersed by all states of the Brazilian Federation. This increase was driven by an unprecedented influx of Haitians and Venezuelans; an increasing number of refugees and migrants from African countries, such as Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea Conakry, among others; Syrian, Palestinian, Cuban refugees and the maintenance of South American mobility flows from Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Paraguay, etc.

18Two main changes should be highlighted. The geography of migration in Brazil has been redesigned, as the northern border, in Acre, Amazonas and Roraima states, has consolidated as the main gateway for international migrants and asylum seekers (Joseph, 2015 and 2017; Martins, 2019; Petek, 2019; Dias et al., 2020; Pacchi, 2020). [9] The normative scenario also was redefined, due to the publication of a new Migration Law (n. 13445/2017), anchored on the principles of human rights and non-criminalization of migrants (Guerra, 2017).

19In the late 2010s, asylum seekers’ requests considerably increased. In 2010 there were 966 asylum requests; in 2019, this number reached 82,500 applications and, in the accumulated ten years, the National Committee for Refugees has counted about 288,000 [10] (Baeninger, 2018a). For many of these migrants asylum applications constituted a strategy to avoid migratory regulation, as in Brazil asylum seekers have the same civil rights as migrants with permanent residency. However, the increasing number of asylum requests was not accompanied by effective responses from the Brazilian Federal Government, so that one application could take up to five years to be analyzed and judged.

20To avoid the saturation of the national refugee system the Brazilian government has begun creating different rules tailored to each new migration flow. As a result, migration policy for forced displacements has come to operate under a dual regime: conventional asylum-seeking procedure coexists with a proliferation of specific regulations for each national group (targeting especially the Global South and regional migrations) such as the “humanitarian visa” for Haitians created in 2012 (Magalhães and Faria, 2017), extended for Syrians in 2019; and specific residence permit for Venezuelans created in 2018, as well as specific ordinances for Senegalese, [11] Dominicans, [12] and Cubans. [13]

21On the one hand, there has been progress in the recognition of refugee status for many Venezuelans, after the National Committee for Refugees in 2019 recognized the situation in Venezuela as a “state of generalized and massive violation of human rights,” applying the enlarged concept of a refugee declared in Cartagena Declaration on Refugees. [14] On the other hand, there has been a proliferation of specific regulations that laid the basis for the differential nature of Brazilian migration policy which does not include any asylum-seeker or migrant in a universal and human rights-based legislation, but rather produces a hierarchical difference between foreign population. The pandemic has deepened and enlarged this pattern by incorporating socio-spatial differentiation between border zones and the rest of the country.

22Moreover, other important shifts towards the criminalization of migration were done by federal government authorities in 2019. The principles of the executive ordinance n. 666 published by the Brazilian Minister of Justice and Public Security in July 2019 were in clear disagreement with the principles that orient the new Migration Law. Among other legal innovations, this document introduced a procedure of “summary deportation” (deportation express) for migrants framed within the abstract category of “dangerous person” (pessoa perigosa) (Ruseishvili and Chaves, 2020). As well pointed out by Stanicia (2019), the government acted by exploiting “legislative loopholes and vague concepts that result in creating a gray zone between legality and illegality, constitutionality and unconstitutionality.” The ordinance caused popular debates and repulsions, as it recalled xenophobic rhetoric that had already been rejected by the new Migration Law. As a result, the ordinance n. 666 was repealed, but in October 2019, the same text was relaunched with few changes (Ordinance n. 770) but maintaining the same deportation regulation. As we show in the next section, this concept of summary deportation will echo in the COVID crisis legal norms restricting international travel and this time it will be effectively enforced, mainly in the land border area.

23Over the years, the northern border has become a sensitive place as it is the main gateway for migrants from the Global South. Starting in 2015, the border between Brazil and Venezuela in Roraima began to centralize attention. A growing contingent of Venezuelans, about 287,000 people, [15] have entered Brazil primarily through the northern border of Roraima, a state with a very precarious public service infrastructure (Jarochinski Silva and Jubilut, 2020). Thus, in 2018 Brazilian government created a humanitarian program for the reception and governance of Venezuelan migrants in Roraima called Operação Acolhida (“Operation Welcome”). The operation is divided into three axes: (i) Border control (law and order enforcement realized by military forces); (ii) Reception (provision of shelter, food, and health service); (iii) Resettlement (voluntary displacement of Venezuelan migrants from the state of Roraima to other locations in Brazil. [16] Machado and Vasconcelos (2021) point out that Operação Acolhida indicates a securitization tendency in Brazilian migration policy, as it is based on the militarization of humanitarian reception. Moreover, Operação Acolhida, set up as a temporary emergency response, does not overcome the emergency nature of humanitarianism, which is a barrier to long-term inclusive solutions (Sampaio and Jarochinski Silva, 2018; Ruseishvili et al., 2018; Jarochinski Silva and Abrahão, 2020).

Migration Regime in Brazil during the COVID-19 Pandemic

24Similar to the vast majority of countries in the world, the main restriction that affected international migration in Brazil was the so-called “border closure,” witch is the prohibition of human cross-border transit, targeting mostly non-citizens.

25On March 17, 2020, [17] the first executive ordinance announced “the exceptional and temporary restriction of entry of foreigners from the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, according to the recommendation (confidential) of the National Health Sanitary Agency - Anvisa”. Its text was anchored on the principles of National Policy for Public Security and National Defense instead of the new Migration law and justified restrictions by two technical arguments: “(i) difficulty of the Brazilian Unified Health System (SUS) to support the treatment of foreigners infected by COVID-19, and (ii) difficulty in containing the spread of coronavirus.”

26Furthermore, the ordinance adopted stigmatizing rhetoric by referring to migrants as “aliens,” [18] the term that had been eliminated from the legal framework as xenophobic with the new Migration law. Subliminally, the ordinance’s text intended to point to Venezuelan migrants as possible transmitters of the virus or indirect cause of overlogging of the Unified Health System (SUS). This legal order also introduced a denial to request for asylum for those who cross the border during the period of restrictions. In other words, any person who crossed the border during that period was unable to regularize herself and neither to quest for asylum in Brazil, which effectively extinguished the right for asylum in the country. Moreover, the ordinance regulated a “summary deportation” for undocumented migrants. All these measures contradicted the principles of the new Migration Law (which strongly disapproves any measures that could criminalize migrants for their undocumented status), as well as violated the non-refoulement principle of the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1997 Brazilian Refugee Law (Baeninger et al., 2020).

27An ordinance ordering the maritime border closure was issued ten days later (March 26). [19] Another law on the following day closed the air borders (March 27), [20] and on April 2, [21] a complementary ordinance closed the land border so that all kinds of access routes (by land, by air, and by water) were blocked. Thus, all the restrictions, including summary deportation and the impossibility of asylum request reached all newcomers, and all forms of access, except only Brazilian citizens, migrants with a residence permit, their family members, foreign professionals in mission, and migrants with permanent residence visa. However, the April 2 ordinance highlighted that none of these exceptions would apply to Venezuelans (see Map 1). It became increasingly evident that the border was operating unevenly criminalizing certain groups and places while opening legal channels for access for others.

Figure 1: Main ordinances published by the Brazilian government during the COVID-19 pandemic (March 2020 to October 2021)

Figure 1

Figure 1: Main ordinances published by the Brazilian government during the COVID-19 pandemic (March 2020 to October 2021)

Source: Brazilian Federal Government, Official Gazette of the Federal Executive, [online]. URL: (organized by C. Fernandes).

28Thus, the first restrictive measures displayed two important aspects of the emergency migration governmentality that will persist throughout the pandemic period: (i) that the fight against the COVID virus is followed by the fight against international migration; and (ii) that the border control is operated by selective and differential law enforcement, as they did not apply to the border as an institution, but rather to specific social groups, defined by national belonging, type of migration document or mode and place of border crossing.

29The socio-spatial differentiation of migration control became even more evident after the publication of a new ordinance, on June 30, 2020, [22] in which the borders were reopened for those who access the Brazilian territory by air. Considering that the main migration movement to Brazil occurs by land border and that international flights were still very limited, these measures aimed to stimulate international touristic and business travel to Brazil while maintaining migrants and asylum seekers under severe restrictions.

30During the following months, the differentiation and contradiction patterns were deepened: (i) On October 14, 2020, [23] the land border with Paraguay was opened, precisely that of the largest transit of people in Brazil (Cardoso and Moura, 2013) (ii) a mandatory COVID negative test (RT-PCR) to enter Brazil was implemented in mid-December 2020, [24] along with other specific measures, such as the ban on the entry of people from the United Kingdom and Ireland [25] and, in January 2021, people who had travelled from South Africa. [26] In May 2021, a new ordinance that limited the entry of travelers from India or who have been in India forteen days before. [27] On June 23, 2021, the border with Venezuela reopened, [28] allowing traffic between border cities and for the Operação Acolhida purposes. The last ordinance, published on October 5, 2021, [29] removed the ban over the United Kingdom, Ireland, South Africa, and India.

31This emergency legal framework imposed a socio-spatial differentiation of control between land borders and airports and weakened sanitary justifications for international mobility restrictions. Moreover, this legal framework reflected and reinforced the unequal facet of the movement of people through space, in which the promises of hypermobility are partial and reserved for a few specific groups of travelers (tourists, entrepreneurs, executives) (Ruseishvili and Truzzi, 2020).

Impacts of the COVID-19 Crisis on International Migrants in Brazil

32As a long academic debate regarding the limits of citizenship demonstrates, distinct groups of citizens and non-citizens may present similar difficulties regarding access to rights (Balibar and Wallerstein, 2007; Sassen, 2006; Benhabib, 2004; Sharma, 2020). Anderson (2019) argues that exclusions from the formal citizenship that hit migrants usually intersect with forms of “differentiated citizenship” related to certain groups of the native population. She proposes thus to “migrantize the citizen” as it “can help us make connections between the formal exclusions of non-citizenship and the multiple, and sometimes informal exclusions within citizenship” (Anderson, 2019: 2). Historically, in Brazil, socioeconomic, urban, racial and regional inequalities form a social configuration, in which formal belonging to the nation does not automatically lead to the full realization of rights (Telles, 2013). This has been aggravated under Bolsonaro’s government regarding specific groups of people such as migrants, indigenous people, black people, homosexuals, women, and so forth.

33In the context of the pandemic in Brazil, some boundaries emerged to obstruct access to the rights both for Brazilians and non-Brazilians. We can point out here the loss of income and access to the Federal Government Emergency Aid Program, as well as the feeling of fear and helplessness resulting from mobility restrictions and, consequently, restrictions of contact with friends and family. At the same time, the migration regime of exception created in the pandemic context affected some specific groups of migrants (Venezuelans and cross-border populations) in a differential and discretionary way.

34Despite the pandemic being a public health event, our interviewees did not demonstrate concerns regarding access to health services. Brazil has a public, free, and universal health system, therefore accessible to anyone, regardless of the migratory status. The Unified Health System is an important tool to be used by the migrants as health services and it has positively impacted the situation of migrants in the pandemic. A survey conducted in May-July 2020 with 2,475 migrants from different origins revealed that 89% of them are the SUS users (Fernandes and Baeninger, 2020).

35On the other hand, there are no public data to estimate the real number of non-citizens contaminated or dead by COVID-19, as SUS does not register the migration status or place of birth of its patients. The field mission of the Union Public Defender’s Office (DPU) held in the Roraima State in March 2021 found out that the National Health Card was being denied to Venezuelan migrants without valid Photo ID. This exclusion mainly affected children and adolescents since the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela does not issue ID cards with photo to children under nine years (DPU, n/d). Although there is no specific investigation yet, these preliminary data may indicate a potential socio-spatial differentiation also regarding access to public health facilities. As health concerns did not appear in our interviews, we will discuss two important issues that impacted both migrant and national populations, although in different ways: loss of income and access to emergency aid. After that, we will focus on the effects produced by restrictive measures on migrants, in particular the increase in deportations and the feeling of uncertainty created by the threat of deportation and illegalization.

Loss of Income and Access to the Emergency Aid

36Unemployment, reduction, or absence of income are the economic impacts of the pandemic that affect both migrant and Brazilian populations. However, income reduction has unevenly impacted the formal and informal labor markets (Cavalcanti et al., 2020). Furthermore, statistical data shows that the negative impact of the pandemic on the formal labor market was not uniform and varied substantially depending on the hiring sector:


“Most immigrants suffered a small impact from the pandemic, especially those associated with the most recent flows of Haitians and, to some extent, Venezuelans, working in sectors related to industry and agriculture. On the other hand, migrants working in service activities such as restaurants and snack bars and those with higher education suffered more the negative effects of the pandemic.” (Cavalcanti et al., 2020: 38)

38As for the informal labor market, for the Brazilian population in general, in 2020, the degree of formalization reached 52.7% of the people employed (Mattei and Heinen, 2020: 655); that is, slightly more than half of the active workers had access to labor rights. For the migrant population, there is no consolidated data, but Oliveira and Oliveira (2020: 193) point out, based on data from the 2010 Demographic Census and the 2015 Annual Household Sample Survey, that the percentage of the informality for migrant workers (40.5%) was similar to the percentage of the informality for the Brazilian population (37.9%). As Mattei and Heinen (2020: 655) suggest, “[...] a mass of ‘flexible’ workers is accumulated, who are institutionally destitute and who remain at the mercy of economic fluctuations that, in times of crisis like the current one, impose on them immediate losses in income”. The production of workers’ income was impacted not only because of the formality of the occupation but also in view of the sector of economic activity. The Solidarity Research Network (Prates and Barbosa, 2020) identified the most vulnerable jobs in the pandemic based on two criteria: the instability of the worker’s bond or position and the degree of instability of the economic sector in the pandemic. The research estimated that 83.5% of Brazilian workers found themselves in a vulnerable situation: “36.6% because they have informal (highly unstable) bonds; 45.9% because, although formal, they were drastically affected by economic dynamics” (Prates and Barbosa, 2020: 3).

39As for our informants, the restrictions on face-to-face activities began when Welder, a Venezuelan migrant living in São Carlos for five years, was shutting down from a formal job in a factory. The unemployment insurance he received made it possible for him to stay home for four months. Welder reports that he felt privileged to have the possibility to stay at home and take care of his family at a time like that. But after four months and despite the fear of going out for work, he found a job in a restaurant assisted by his local social network and took over his job with a formal employment contract. Just as Welder, Alberto also did not experience the loss of income: when the restaurant in which he worked closed in October 2020, he was quickly hired by another one.

40Meanwhile, for the Haitian population in Rio Claro, the situation was more heterogeneous. Those who were employed in the factories managed to keep their jobs. The economic crisis affected individuals who worked without a formal license or were self-employed and in services not considered as essential. Jefferson worked as a gardener and was fired in the pandemic; now, out of a job, he earns income from temporary jobs. José reports that some Haitian migrants travelled to southern states of Brazil or tried to travel to neighboring countries in search of better job opportunities. Some of them returned to the city because they could not cross the border between Peru and the state of Acre. Mobility, an important sociocultural value for the Haitian diaspora (Da Silva, 2020), did not cease with the restrictions caused by the pandemic (especially with the interruption of long-distance bus services), although it was negatively impacted by them. Subjectively, distances increased because the trip became more time-consuming, more expensive, more uncertain, and more dangerous.

41Another point worth mentioning is the access of migrants to the Emergency Aid Program, implemented from April to December 2020 by the Federal Government as the main measure to combat the loss of the population’s income (Brazil. Presidência da República, 2020). The emergency aid consisted of monthly payments of R$ 600 which are equivalent to 60% of the national minimum wage. [30] Any person, Brazilian or non-citizen, could qualify for the Aid benefit, as long as she meets eligibility guidelines. [31] The Emergency Aid was crucial for non-citizens and newcomers since many of them are part of the informal sector of the economy, do not have fixed income or have lost their income during the pandemic. By October 2020, around 149,000 migrants received aid, primarily Venezuelans (42,519), Haitians (22,365), and Bolivians (21,318). [32] The municipalities with the highest percentage of migrant beneficiaries were Pacaraima in Roraima (15.8%), Chuí in Rio Grande do Sul (11.6%), Mucajaí in Roraima (10.3%), and Boa Vista in Roraima (9.8%). It is important to highlight that these are municipalities located in the land border areas of Brazil — that is, the places with the highest concentration of migrant residents.

42As for migrants in non-border regions, effective access to aid was the most acute issue. The high discretion characteristic of the “street-level bureaucracy” service (Lipsky, 2019; Cardoso, 2020) usually impacts those who do not have sufficient social and linguistic capital. In the case of the implementation of Emergency Aid, the “system-level bureaucracy” was more significant since the process was implemented digitally (Cardoso, 2020). Preliminary research has shown that digital difficulties (not being able to enter the website, not being able to register or log in) were the main factors that prevented eligible migrants from accessing the government benefit (Fernandes and Baeninger, 2020). In this case, those migrants who had a network capital (Urry, 2007) or who were assisted by a migrant support organization were more likely to access the aid (Fernandes and Baeninger, 2020).

43Luiz, a leader of a religious organization that shelters migrants in São Carlos, and José, a representative of the Association of Haitians in Rio Claro, reported that some migrants needed help to register in the system, to provide the right documentation, or even to access a stable internet connection or a computer. Prates and Barbosa (2020) found out that Brazilian families with up to three minimum-wage incomes per month do not have any other device to access the internet except cell phones, wich limits considerably their online performance and the range of their digital activities. For the most economically vulnerable migrants, these digital limitations intersect with language limitations, as Portuguese is the hegemonic language in Brazilian online services.

Risks of Undocumented Status and Threats of Deportations

44The concern that our interviewees most expressed was uncertainty related to migration documentation. Among the addressed topics were increased difficulty to regularize expired documents in the Federal Police offices due to its intermittent closure; limitations of access to rights (Emergency Aid, public health services, banking services) due to migration irregularity, and feeling s of fear and impotence in the face of the lack of valid documents.

45Thus, migrants were exposed to forced and intermittent undocumented status, wich affected regardless of their migration status or national origin. Those of our interviewees that needed assistance from the Federal Police throughout the pandemic expressed concerns over tendentious treatment. Alberto said that his documents were about to expire and though he sent emails to the Federal Police, he received no response: “I will remain undocumented until they decide to give me the document. I feel like it’s a dangerous situation. I feel that I depend on the will of someone, I feel powerless”. Luís reported that in January 2021, a Venezuelan migrant from the church community scheduled a visit to the Federal Police office to regularize her documents and the officer charged her a fine of R$ 4,600 (four paychecks at minimum-wage) for being undocumented and threatened her with deportation.

46The church community hired a lawyer and managed to free the migrant from fines and the threat of deportation. Maria, the legal advisor for migrant’s advocacy organization in São Paulo, reported in an interview that the Federal Police officers apply the rule that migrants who crossed the land border during the border closure could not be regularized, regardless of the actual date of their arrival. As a result, migrants are forced to prove anyhow that they entered Brazil before or after pandemic restrictions. Those who cannot gather such proof receive the notice of a fine (R$ 100 per day in an undocumented situation) and are requested to leave the country within sixty days or to regularize their migration status.

47This practice was created in the pandemic period and persisted until the day we have finished the research (November 2021). It forces irregular migrants to stay “invisible” as they fear deportation and feel insecure in front of rapidly changing, contradictory, and overwhelming legal norms. It is worth noting however that Brazil does not have a national mass deportation policy and enforcement, so, formally, for those who reside far from the country’s border areas, deportation remains an administrative threat.

48However, the Federal Police data indicate a disproportionate growth of deportations in the border areas during the pandemic period, as Table 2 demonstrates.

Map 1: Deportations by Municipalities (January 2020 to April 2021)

Figure 2

Map 1: Deportations by Municipalities (January 2020 to April 2021)

Source: Federal Police (2020-2021).
Credit: C. Fernandes, 2021.

49From January 2020 to April 2021 3,170 persons were deported: 1,079 in 2021, and 2,091 in 2020. To compare: in 2019 there were thirty-six deportations registered by the Federal Police.

50As the Table 2 exhibits, most cases were registered in the municipalities of the land border area (99,46% of the total number of deportations). Special attention should be paid to some places that regional migrants (mostly Bolivians and Venezuelans) use as entry routes: in Pacaraima (Roraima-Venezuela border) 1,665 deportations were enforced; in Corumbá (Mato Grosso do Sul-Bolivia border) 1,018 deportations. As we see in the Table 2, the most affected by deportations migrants were Bolivians and Venezuelans, although other nationalities have been deported too.

Table 2: Number of deportations by migrant’s origin. January 2020 to April 2021

Figure 3

Table 2: Number of deportations by migrant’s origin. January 2020 to April 2021

Source: Federal Police (2020-2021).
Credit: C. Fernandes, 2021.

51Law regulations issued by the Brazilian federal government throughout the pandemic created a normative basis for differential enforcement of migration control, which operates by enhancing vigilance in border zones and by illegalizing migrants in non-gateway localities, producing thus a socio-spatial differentiation of control over the migrant population.

52In Roraima, the Union Public Defender’s Office (DPU, n/d) verified the summary deportations and refoulement at the border carried out by various public security forces. Intensive surveillance and military barriers that prevent migrants from reaching health and humanitarian equipment were also recorded. In March 2021, the DPU and the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office brought a public civil action against the Federal government requiring to stop summary deportations at the border, in which arbitrary actions and the contradictions of Brazilian migration policy in the face of the entry of Venezuelan migrants were highlighted:


“On the one hand Operação Acolhida and the Judiciary attend to undocumented migrants, but on the other hand, the Federal Police, the Special Border Platoon, the National Force and other public security institutions, instead of providing reception and protection, give blind and automatic compliance to Ordinance No. 652 of January 25, 2021, denying the entry of those people who are found on the trails or, if already located at national territory, are immediately deported, without any possibility of individual analysis of their vulnerabilities. In short, if the migrants are detained by the military corps of Operação Acolhida, they are sent to humanitarian facilities. But if they are approached by the Special Border Platoon, the National Force, the Military Police, or the Civil Police, they are forwarded to the Federal Police office for deportation.” (Roraima. Justiça Federal da 1ª Região, 2021: 3)

54The same can be seen in Corumbá, where local press reported that military border operations, carried out between March and August 2020, resulted in the deportation of more than 700 migrants. [33] In Acre (Brazil- Peru-Bolivia border), from March to August 2020, local press reported about forty deportations. [34] In each of these regions, the summary deportations were halted judicially by the mobilization of human rights organizations, such as the Union Public Defender’s Office, Conectas Human Rights Organization, Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, evidencing “border struggles” between mobility practices and their control (Hess, 2012; Mezzadra and Neilson, 2013; De Genova, 2015; Hess and Kasparek, 2017; Mezzadra, 2015; Domenech, 2020).

55In Roraima, the intensification of border control directly impacted the lives of Venezuelan migrants who depend on cross-border mobility, either to send objects or remittances to family members in Venezuela or to make temporary returns. Daniel, a Venezuelan who has lived in Boa Vista (Roraima) since 2018, narrated that he was on vacation at his mother’s house in Venezuela when the borders closed in March 2020. When the time to return to Brazil came, he faced the lack of clear information about the legal border crossing and with the normative discrimination against Venezuelans:


In June, I got a hide with a trucker to come to the border. I witnessed the situation of Venezuelans with Brazilian resident permit who were in Venezuela and wanted to return to Brazil because the Brazilian embassy announced that people with residence permit could legally return to Brazil. But when I got to the border, they told me I couldn’t get into the country. Any foreigner with residence could enter Brazil, except Venezuelans. I stood at the border, tried to get in through the illegal routes, and it didn’t work out. I was caught by the Venezuelan military forces, they forced me to quarantine. There were no more buses, people needed to find ways to get around. I stayed at the hotel in Venezuela, eating very bad food, they took my passport and forced me to quarantine with four other people. When the quarantine was over, I crossed the border by illegal path (trocha). All my things were in Brazil, I was glad they held me in the job. They could not resign because of government decrees. I was able to get back, but I got COVID or flu: I had a fever, but the test came back negative. The border is closed, but people keep coming. There are smugglers and some clandestine paths, but the situation is very precarious because it is a dangerous way to cross. The police and the army pursue people to deport, the DPU tries to protect the indigenous groups from deportation. It’s all too tangled up.

57The restrictions also affected the movement of objects between Brazil and Venezuela. Alberto reported that he and other Venezuelans living in São Carlos have stopped sending products, medicines, and remittances to their families in Venezuela. Further studies would be needed to understand how this interruption impacted not only the economic situation of family members in Venezuela but also the maintenance of transnational family ties.

58Thus, we saw that the Brazilian government’s regulatory response to the pandemic produced different effects depending on the national origin of migrants, the place of their residence in Brazil (border area versus non-gateway localities), and their network capital. In practice, the restrictions on international mobility affected more land borders than air ones (Cavalcanti et al., 2020). Thus, migration control impacted disproportionally already vulnerable migrants and asylum-seekers coming from the neighboring Latin America and Caribbean countries and who enter through the land border in precarious conditions.

Final Considerations

59It has already been emphasized (Cresswell, 2021; Migreurop, 2020) that international borders closure in response to the pandemic is not a scientific-based measure if it is not accompanied by effective and centralized public health responses. Cresswell (2021) argues that the mobility restrictions during the pandemic reflected a hegemonic sedentary conception of social life that sees mobility as a social pathology. The analysis of the Brazilian case supports this argument with evidence that the state of exception caused by COVID-19 did not aim to stop the contamination but rather to stop international cross-border mobility. By doing so, emergency restrictive measures reinforced heterogeneous and overlapping regimes of mobility understood as structures and hierarchies of power, unequally distributed in the contemporary world (Glick Schiller and Salazar, 2013; Adey et al., 2021).

60As we show, legal responses to the COVID-19 crisis regarding international migration in Brazil deepened some securitization trends that had already been arising in the pre-pandemic period and created new legal arrangements that tend to perpetuate in the immediate post-pandemic era. On the one hand, governmental measures in order to mitigate negative economic and health impacts of the COVID-19 crisis approximated citizens and non-citizens. On the other hand, the migration regime created and reinforced the socio-spatial differentiation of migration control over some groups and places. The most vulnerable groups have become the more affected by restrictive legal norms and their enforcement: (i) securitization of border control resulted in mass deportations and the criminalization of solidarity and increasing in numbers of undocumented migrants; (ii) mass deportations targeted migrants in some specifics land border areas; (iii) the suspension of the right to seek asylum impacted mainly vulnerable migrants, as asylum has been an important channel for entry and permanence in Brazil; (iv) restrictive ordinances prepared the ground for mass production of irregular migrants since people continue to cross borders but have few legal conditions to regularize their migration status. The latter deserves attention. Civil society organizations that promote migrants’ regularization in Brazil have reported that undocumented migrants who request a regularization in the Federal Policy offices have faced new difficulties, as police agents require mandatory pieces of evidence from them that they have crossed the border before COVID restrictions. Those who cannot prove that their stay in Brazil is previous to March 2020 are unable to regularize their migration status unless they enlist legal advisors to judicialize the request for regularization. Many migrants, particularly the most vulnerable ones, prefer staying undocumented until new legal arrangements.

61It seems that this normative framework does not fit exactly in what De Genova (2010) conceptualizes as the “legal production of migrants’ illegality”, as many of these norms are being contested as abusive, illegal, and violating international conventions. In the Brazilian case, the government has produced an “illegal production of illegality” since executive norms oscillated between legal and illegal and violated pre-existing regulations under the argument of a “public health crisis”.

62Bolsonaro’s government’s non-uniform closure of borders exposes the hegemony of the economic and nativist perspective, according to which the mobility of kinetic elites (international tourists, executives, operators of commodities’ circulation, and so on) have a higher value than migration mobility. In the context of the global reduction in tourist travel, Brazil encourages the arrival of tourists, who makes the capital circulate, while criminalizing and making precarious the lives of migrants who rely on mobility to survive. “Essential” versus “existential” mobilities, as Salazar (2021) puts it.

63In this context, we emphasize, in agreement with other researchers (Sheller, 2018; Heller, 2021), that it is necessary to discuss international migration stemming from the perspective of justice of (im)mobility, calling into question normative practices of states that deepen unequal access to a safe and comfortable travel. As it has already been pointed out (Lazreg and Garnaoui, 2020; Harvey, 2020) the free management of own mobility/immobility practices should not be a privilege of global elites, regarding that compulsory immobility (for instance, in the case of forced displaced persons) and compulsory mobility (in case of precarious delivery workers, merchants, and other urban “essential services”) put in risk the proper reproduction of life.



This article examines the effects of international mobility restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil from March 2020 to October 2021. We argue that a peculiar migration and border regime was established in this period, which did not totally suspend the established norms but instead enforced selective hypervigilance, placing under exception determined places and groups of migrants. We conducted an exploratory qualitative study by interviewing migrant residents and examining the totality of restrictive normative ordinances produced by the Brazilian government to control international cross-border circulation. We also explored the Federal Police data on deportations through the pandemic period. We state that there has been an excessive growth of deportations, especially in the border areas. The border closure thus created a normative basis for socio-spatial differentiation of migration control, enhancing vigilance in border zones and illegalizing migrants in non-gateway localities.

  • Brazil
  • migration policy
  • international migration
  • COVID-19 Pandemic
  • border and migration regime
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Svetlana Ruseishvili
PhD, Adjunct Professor in the Department of Sociology at Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), Brazil;
Caio Fernandes
PhD, Candidate at the Geography Department of Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Researcher and collaborator in the project: “(Im)Mobilities in the Americas”, which collectively reflects on (Im)mobility and control in the Americas during the Pandemic ;
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 28/10/2022
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