The Social and Economic Impact of COVID-19 on LGBTTQIA+ migrants and refugees in Brazil

By Nathália Antonucci

and Marina Siqueira


The migratory flow to Brazil has been increasing exponentially with the Venezuelan crisis. About 261,000 Venezuelans live in Brazil today[1] and many others wish to cross the border. The profile of migrants and refugees is, unlike the social imaginary, quite heterogeneous in terms of gender, sexuality, age, class, and race. Among these migrants and refugees, some of them identify with the identities that make up the acronym LGBTTQIA+[2] (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Travesti, Queer, Intersex and Asexual and other identities represented by the “+”) and, in addition to the problems related to the Venezuelan socioeconomic crisis, they do not feel safe and have their rights violated in their country.


Many of these trajectories are marked by episodes of violence, suffering, and abandonment that result in silenced potentialities. Migration appears, in most cases, as a way of inhabiting new possibilities for social, political, and economic life. However, after migrating, these people continue to be exposed to structural violence that, like them, also crosses transnational borders and is present in Brazil: xenophobia, racism, LGBTTQIA+phobia, etc.


The largest flow of Venezuelans takes place at the border with the State of Roraima, and one of the main responses of the Brazilian government has been the interiorization[3] of these people to other cities in Brazil as an integration strategy. However, the lack of support structures in the destination cities has created a flawed strategy which ends up only diluting the problem, distributing it to several cities without solving it.


For migrants and refugees who identify as LGBTTQIA+, these shortcomings include deeply cis/heteronormative practices by institutions, especially religious, that are unprepared to deal with the particularities of this public, in addition to the complete absence of specific public policies. Added to this is the fact that, as a rule, they carry out very lonely migratory processes and have, due to LGBTTQIA+phobia, the difficulty of insertion among compatriots, having few or no networks of affection they can count on, besides the fact that they are not immediately included in local LGBTTQIA+ networks.


The statistical invisibility of this population appears as another form of violence. As proposed by Facundo (2014), the statistical sources of information about refuge are produced and controlled almost exclusively by UN agencies, especially UNHCR, and this information management role is essential for the exercise of humanitarian government. The only official survey available[4] which gathers statistical data on LGBTTQIA+ refugees in Brazil has several limitations, but in general only counts people who have sought refuge with motivations explicitly related to the persecution or threat to their sexual orientation or gender identity. This leaves out other asylum seekers who are LGBTTQIA+ but who, for various reasons, did not point out that persecution or threat linked to gender identity or sexual orientation was their main motivation for applying. The number also only represents asylum seekers and refugees, so does not cover all other forms of migration, and is limited to the years 2010 to 2016, not including the mass migration of Venezuelans to Brazil which began in 2017. Although this research is extremely important, we continue without a more accurate and in-depth portrait of the migrant and refugee people who identify themselves as LGBTTQIA+ in Brazil, covering not only statistical parameters but also social and economic conditions of this population.


It is in this context of invisibility and marginalization of LGBTTQIA+ migrants and refugees that LGBT+Movimento acts, a civil society organization founded in 2017 in Rio de Janeiro and created by the two authors to work with the support, integration, and creation of affection networks for this population in Brazil. We created the organization inspired by our professional and life experiences, after identifying failures of the State and humanitarian system in dealing with migrants and refugees that identify as LGBTTQIA+, and after understanding that the work of articulating community networks and raising awareness among actors and agents is essential for the transformation and care of these subjects.


The LGBT+Movimento outlines its proposal for existence and action on the establishment of relationships of affection and intimacy with migrants and refugees who identify themselves as LGBTTQIA+. While in other organizations the relationships of affection and intimacy may or may not happen, at LGBT+Movimento they are essential part of the proposal of the organization that seeks to “debureaucratize” management relations. By “debureaucratization” we do not mean that we disregard or ignore the bureaucratic dimensions related to migratory processes, on the contrary; we seek to show that our work differs precisely because it is not restricted to these dimensions.


In June 2020, LGBT+Movimento organized a survey to trace the socioeconomic profile of the target population and understand how the pandemic was affecting the maintenance of daily, psychological, employability, and income needs. The purpose of the survey was to be able to build quantitative data on migrant/refugee people who identify themselves as LGBTTQIA+ that, as mentioned, is almost nonexistent in Brazil, in addition to directing the organization’s work in adapting activities and setting priorities during the Covid-19 pandemic period, seeking to understand the greatest needs. The total number of responses to the survey was 46 people[5]. As a second stage of the research, interviews were conducted to deepen and better understand the quantitative results.


In addition to the quantitative and qualitative data produced from the survey and the interviews, LGBT+Movimento has been mapping trajectories of LGBTTQIA+ people on the move since 2018, based on reports of their experiences. Some people have been accompanied from the beginning until today and others have been arriving in Rio de Janeiro over the past three or so years. As the organization’s proposal is based on affection and the construction of community networks, a lot of time is dedicated to building relationships of trust and intimacy with the people assisted. The wealth of all information and exchanges was also used as a way of analyzing the impact of the pandemic on these trajectories, in comparison with what their lives were like before and what transformations were produced.



It is difficult to measure the aggravation of the situation of migrants and refugees who identify themselves as LGBTTQIA+ during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is partly because of what was discussed above about the statistical invisibility that makes up the violence to which these people are subjected, and which is a substantial part of the reason why there are no public policies that specifically think of migrants and refugees who identify as LGBTTQIA+ in Brazil. On the other hand, we are talking about precarious living conditions that, even within this precariousness, were further aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Regarding employability and income, 78.2% of the people who participated in the survey are unemployed, with 58.7% having been living on an income below 200,00 reais per month (about 35 US dollars) since the beginning of the pandemic. When we cross-reference the data of unemployed people with racial and gender identity, we find a reality that is already well known in Brazil: black and transgender people are the most marginalized. Among migrants and refugees who are trans/travestis, 80% are unemployed; 87.5% of these identify themselves as black, mixed, or mixed race. These data do not represent “life situations” only, but rather what Tania Li (2010), inspired by Foucault, calls "letting die" policies, that structure the daily violence faced by migrants and refugees who identify themselves as LGBTTQIA+. Access to formal jobs is marked by cis/heteronormative violence and the intersection of non-dominant social positions beyond gender identity and sexual orientation such as class, race, and migratory status (BHAGAT, 2018). Without specific legislation or programs, lack of opportunity guarantees the maintenance of a cycle of exclusion and exposure to violence, constant threats of job loss and slave-like situations that often impose a survival mindset, in which dreams - which have often driven migration - are left out of reach. The research showed that 70% of the trans/travestisrefugees and migrants interviewed started or intensified their work in prostitution in Brazil and report having difficulties in breaking this cycle when they want to[6]. Throughout our work, we accompany trans women who went through processes of detransition after episodes of violence related to transphobia and racism here in Brazil[7].


Age also appears as an important social marker in the analysis. The majority of people interviewed by LGBT+Movimento, 56.5%, are young people, according to the Brazilian Youth Statute that considers young people up to 29 years old. Migration processes can have a great impact on young people. Change of country in this age group leads to less development time in formal education and work experience before migration, which will influence the socioeconomic insertion in the destination country. Among those who maintain contact with their family, many come aiming to achieve financial independence to be able to help family members who stayed in the country of origin, which represents additional pressure. Additionally, interruptions to networks and learning processes at this age can harm one’s education in rights and citizenship.

The Covid-19 pandemic made us reflect on the importance of having data. Data is essential to understand the context in which we live, and who, within that context, is being hit the most. During the Covid-19 pandemic, President Jair Bolsonaro expressed his denial about the impact of the pandemic in Brazil in several ways. In June 2020, for example, he decided to remove essential data about the virus' progress throughout the country, making us reflect on how data acquires importance in the materialization of realities[8]. Thus, we consider the research effort also a way of resistance to a system that produces LGBTTQIA+ migrant and/or refugees bodies as unimportant and, therefore, unrecorded.


The research was intended to allow us to recognize the still very invisible existence of migrants and refugees who identify themselves as LGBTTQIA+ living in Brazil, drawing attention to the sparse debate about the intersection of migration/asylum and gender/sexuality and the main difficulties these people experience in accessing the minimum conditions of citizenship and dignity, especially during the pandemic. Part of our effort lies in the fact that gender and sexuality can no longer be thought of as secondary categories or mere peculiarities when it comes to the management of migrants and refugees. Thinking of migrants and refugees who identify themselves as LGBTTQIA+ through male/female binarism erases important aspects of their identities, subjectivities, and the difficulties they face. Therefore, restricting them to this system before including them is to delete them!


In any case, we recognize that these displacements are not restricted only to gender and sexuality, but are extended to the many intersectionalities present, above all race, class, nationality, and migratory status. Thus, we seek to broaden the debate beyond just discussing possibilities of exercising sexuality and identities. The debate on LGBTTQIA+ migrant and refugee people should not be restricted to aspects of gender and sexuality; on the contrary, it should extend to encompass all aspects that relate to daily life and migratory trajectories, without, however, losing the perspective that gender and sexuality intersect and constitute these experiences.


In general, it is possible to say that we are failing as a country to welcome and integrate these people. The transformation of the narrated scenario depends on the joint action of agencies responsible for the reception of migrants and refugees in Brazil and of society as a whole, so that they are sensitized and understand the specificities and urges of this audience, and deal with their vulnerabilities, without silencing their powers. It is urgent to recognize the social problems faced by LGBTTQIA+ migrants and refugees, as well as the active engagement of state and non-state organizations in transforming this situation of social exclusion.


Marina Siqueira is lesbian, lawyer and master's student in Public Policies in Human Rights by NEPP-DH/UFRJ focusing on migrant and refugees LBTT Latin American woman in Brazil. She is a specialist in Gender and Sexuality by CLAM/IMS/UERJ, has already worked with access to rights and health for LGBTTQIA+ population and people living with HIV/AIDS and with advocacy on humanitarian issues for Latin America, with missions in Roraima in the context of Venezuelan migration and Covid-19. At LGBT+Movimento, an organization she co-created, she works as Protection and Advocacy Coordinator.

Nathália Antonucci is lesbian and doctoral student in Public Health in the area of Human Sciences and Health at IMS/UERJ. She completed a master's degree in Anthropology at UFF with a focus on life experiences of trans and lesbian women, Venezuelans and asylum seekers who migrated to Roraima and were later interiorized to Rio de Janeiro. She is a specialist in Gender and Sexuality by CLAM/ IMS/UERJ. At LGBT+Movimento, an organization she co-created, she works as Community Mobilization Coordinator.


See also: @lgbtmaismovimento

facebook.com/lgbtmaismovimento

www.lgbtmaismovimento.com.br


Footnotes:

[1] See R4V (Response for Venezuelans) platform: https://r4v.info/es/situations/platform [2] According to França and Fontgaland (2020) the category of LGBTI + refugees is "under erasure", since it has been "managed by people who strive to navigate between them, widening their limits" (p. 63) amid the practices of management that are underway in the North of Brazil. In this text, we recognize the importance of considering the internal diversity of the acronym “LGBTI” when dealing with refuge and immigration, so we emphasize that among migrants and refugees there are people who identify with some of the identities that make up the acronym LGBTTQIA +. However, in order to facilitate communication, we will use, throughout the text, the expression “migrants and refugees who identify themselves as LGBTTQIA +”. [3] According to UNHCR: “The interiorization is a program of the Brazilian federal government for the Venezuelan population living in Roraima and Amazonas that aim to move safely to other parts of Brazil. The programme is primarily for Venezuelans who are in a situation of vulnerability in the cities of Boa Vista, Pacaraima and Manaus, both in shelters and outside them. The interiorization process is completely voluntary and free.” [4] UNHCR. Profile of asylum claims related to sexual orientation and gender identity. Available at: https://www.acnur.org/portugues/refugiolgbti/

[5] This number does not represent the total number of people assisted by LGBT+Movimento, since completing the survey was never a prerequisite for accessing the organization. We also know that this number does not represent the total number of migrants and refugees who identify themselves as LGBTTQIA+ living in Rio de Janeiro today. [6] Like Olivar and Garcia (2017), we consider "singularities and positivities" avoiding pathologizations and "negative epistemologies" in relation to the theme of prostitution, but without forgetting to highlight contexts in which it is understood as violence or suffering by trans women/travestis.

[7] For a more in-depth discussion on detransition in the Venezuelan context see Antonucci (2020). [8] For a more in-depth discussion, see Freire (2020).


References:

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