Brazil, the unlikely last hope of Afghan refugees

The South American country has become one of the few remaining options to get a humanitarian visa to escape the Taliban. São Paulo’s airport has been hosting new arrivals in a makeshift camp for months

At least 70 Afghans remain stranded at the airport in São Paulo, Brazil.
At least 70 Afghans remain stranded at the airport in São Paulo, Brazil.Lela Beltrão

Kabul and São Paulo are separated by an ocean, two continents and more than 8,500 miles. Given this distance, one wouldn’t assume that Brazil would become a favorite host country of Afghans fleeing the Taliban regime. However, the scene inside Terminal 2 of São Paulo International Airport – filled with improvised mattresses and tents – tells a different story.

Dozens of Afghan families are living at the airport – some have been stranded in the terminal for months. They wait on the airport floor until they find a permanent place to settle, or until they embark on a journey to an even more distant destination. They have come to Brazil because developed countries closed their doors on them a long time ago.

Refugiados en Afganistán
An Afghan woman in one of the improvised camps in the halls of São Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport.Lela Beltrão

Zulmai Noori, 28, arrived in São Paulo at the beginning of September. He got a spot in a shelter, but even so, almost every day he goes to the airport to see if he can lend a hand to his compatriots. He almost always works as an interpreter, as he is one of the few newly-arrived Afghans who speaks English.

“When the Taliban took over Afghanistan, all the countries closed their doors to us. Right now, only Brazil gives us visas,” he explains as he greets a few acquaintances. He smiles, using a few words of Portuguese that he has quickly learned.

Initially, Western countries helped certain Afghans – especially those who had worked with them in embassies – flee the country. But in general, those with no ties to Western governments, foreign companies or NATO forces had a much harder time getting visas.

In September 2021, the Brazilian government – following its diplomatic tradition of being a welcoming land – approved granting humanitarian visas to all Afghan citizens. Since there is no Brazilian embassy in Kabul, those who wish to secure this travel document must travel to neighboring Iran or Pakistan.

Noori spent six months in Tehran – the time it usually takes for the visa to be issued after the interview at the embassy. With the help of a brother-in-law who lives in Europe, he got together $1,200 for a plane ticket. He landed in Brazil without a plan. But he has no regrets.

“Universities and schools are closed. Women can no longer work outside the home. For the Taliban, it’s normal… they do whatever they want. They just want us to go to the mosque or study the holy scriptures – nothing else matters.”

Noori – like the majority of Afghans who have come to Brazil – belongs to the country’s upper class. Few can afford such an expensive trip. He worked as an official in the Ministry of Martyrs and Handicapped, which distributed aid to the most vulnerable. Due to his position in the previous administration, his life was in danger.

“When the Taliban took power [in 2021], they saw us as enemies,” he recalls.

Afghan families have been living in this part of the airport for weeks.Lela Beltrão

Although Noori ventured out alone, most Afghans came to Brazil with their entire families.

Frogh Noori, 31, explains that he has come with his father, his mother, three sisters, a brother, his wife and two young children. He left his job at the family logistics company and arrived in São Paulo with an entire life packed into a few suitcases. Brazil was not in his plans, but a friend of his father told him that the embassy in Tehran was handing out visas.

“I didn’t know anything about Brazil, but that friend – who lives in Germany – told us that it was a good country. That’s why we decided to come here for now. We didn’t work in embassies or NGOs, which is why we couldn’t request asylum in another country,” he explains.

He’s now used to the improvised camp at the airport. Since his family is large and they don’t want to be split up, it will be difficult to find a place for everyone in a shelter. They have decided to be patient.

Since Brazil approved the humanitarian measure in September of 2021, at least 6,300 have been issued, according to the most recent data from the Ministry of Justice. This does not mean that all of the visa recipients have ended up in Brazil. According to the Federal Police, only about 2,800 Afghans have entered the country with a humanitarian visa. Many are still in countries that neighbor Afghanistan, organizing their families and saving up to be able to travel. Others arrived in Brazil, but immediately headed for another country.

Many of those arriving do not request refugee status, as this would prevent them from leaving Brazil. A humanitarian visa is sufficient to reside in the country and work legally.

The exact number of Afghans residing in Brazil at this time is difficult to determine. The country’s reception structure has been disorganized – but from the perspective of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Brazil’s actions have been critical:

“This government measure has saved many lives. Brazil is a country that truly has a policy of granting visas to people who [are escaping] persecution. There are some similar initiatives in Canada and Australia, but [refugees] say that, with Brazil, the process is easier,” explains William Laureno da Rosa, UNHCR’s senior protection assistant in Brazil, by phone.

Virtually all of the Afghans arrive at Guarulhos International Airport, in São Paulo, because it maintains a direct connection with Doha, Qatar, from where most Afghans are permitted to depart.

The airport camp is divided into two zones – families and women with children on one side, single men on the other. In a dead-end corridor, donations accumulate and food distribution is organized. The walls are covered with notices and drawings made by the children.

To have some privacy and shelter from the artificial light that does not let up, there are small cabins made of blankets and sheets. One side of a Bank of Brazil branch has become the favorite corner to pray while facing Mecca. The owner of a hotel near the airport charters a van every day, so that the new arrivals can shower and wash up comfortably.

The hostels and shelters in São Paulo are either full, or they offer spaces that won’t fit entire families. However, this has been changing little by little, according to UNHCR representative Da Rosa. In recent months, the local authorities have opened 300 units that are already adapted to Afghans’ needs – but this is still not enough.

A child plays in the halls.
A child plays in the halls.Lela Beltrão

For Swany Zenobini – who has been working as a volunteer at the airport practically since the beginning of the trickle of Afghan refugees – beyond citizen solidarity, there was a lack of a more effective response to the wave of new arrivals.

“The richest state in Brazil collapsed with 20 Afghans arriving per day. It’s inconceivable. The impression you get is that the Bolsonaro government gave out the visa and nothing else, it didn’t care about the rest of the process. Everything began to get complicated in August of this year – but they had a year to prepare,” she expresses with frustration.

Until now, Brazil did not have an Afghan community, which is an extra challenge for the resettlement of new arrivals. When the Syrian refugees came en masse after 2011, fleeing the war, São Paulo’s powerful Syrian-Lebanese diaspora acted as a support mechanism. Today, ordinary Brazilians – such as Zenobini – have organized themselves.

Around 140 volunteers now make up the Afghan Front Collective. They take turns every day, so that there is always someone at the airport handing out food, acting as a bridge with the police, or alerting new arrivals to the dangers of human trafficking – a risk for those who wish to leave the country and head north.

Several Afghans have undertaken unsafe routes towards the US. First, they travel to the border state of Acre, next to Bolivia. From there, they begin a very long and dangerous journey through all of Latin America. Others choose to travel to French Guiana, where they hope to make the leap to Europe.

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