The Refugee Regime in Brazil

There are currently more refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons around the world than any other time in history. In 2015, two million people applied for asylum worldwide—more than any other year on record. Based on a relational ethnography of the asylum-screening process —triangulated with interviews, content analyses of documents, and statistical analyses of case decisions— I contend with the following guiding concerns: How does refugee status determination work in practice, and what does it accomplish? How does race operate through that process?

Brazil provides a fruitful case for empirical and theoretical development. While most asylum scholarship focuses on North America or Europe, 84% of the world’s refugees are in the Global South. Brazil is a rapidly increasing receiver of such migrations. While there were 966 asylum applications in 2010, this number reached almost 29,000 in 2015. Moreover, most research on race and immigration in Brazil has been historical. The racial configurations of immigration policy in contemporary Brazil remain largely unaddressed.

While immigration scholars have done much important work on how states develop immigration policy, they have focused less on how those policies are implemented. Yet, understanding immigration policies requires examining the everyday workings of state practice. Rather than just implement policy, officials make policy as they interact with asylum seekers and hold high levels of discretion in determining the state’s allocation of rights and sanctions. And, throughout the refugee status determination process, state officials and NGO workers impart vital lessons to asylum seekers and refugees about what they can expect in Brazil, in terms of rights, treatment, and resources.

The asylum-screening process is thus a key moment of contact between Brazil and those seeking its protection. Contrary to what scholarship on bureaucracies might suggest, these encounters vary greatly depending on perceptions of an asylum seeker’s social location–particularly their race, gender and nationality.

This research received support from the U.S.-Brazil Fulbright Commission, the U.S. Department of Education, and P.E.O. International, among others (see CV).

Refugee Center, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 2013
Refugee Center, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil