Manuel Fernando Ngury, an Angolan refugee, is bringing visibility and rights to thousands of refugees and immigrants in Brazil.
The New Idea
“Ngury” is strengthening Brazil’s refugee-hosting capacity, both conceptually and at the level of policy and legal issues. Part of his work is in preparing Brazilian society—changing the way people think about refugees and immigrants (as many refugees are legally classified)—by inserting the issue into a human rights discourse. Ngury also pushes to guarantee refugees’ basic citizenship rights, as well as improved access to education and jobs. He is beginning to transcend the zero-sum game so common in the human rights field (with different groups battling for resources, time, etc.) by collaborating with different groups, but this is dependent on the policy he hopes to change. For example, Ngury may work with the Afro-Brazilian movement to mobilize the refugee population to advocate for equal access to education, or other social movements to implement laws guaranteeing economic rights to employment.
The links Ngury creates go far beyond political advocacy: He also forges connections for refugees to the social and business sectors by skillfully speaking to their interests. These links include shifting incentives for the business sector to hire refugees and immigrants and changing the legal terms that stand in the way of them being admitted to universities.
Traditional refugee-hosting countries are in Europe and North America. By transforming Brazil’s structures for hosting refugees to be competitive on a global level, Ngury is creating a shift in thinking about where possible host countries can be.
In Brazil, refugees and immigrants, especially those from Africa, are faced with an almost impossible array of prejudices and obstacles, including racism and poverty. They suffer from racial, ethnic, and social discrimination, deeply inherent in Brazilian culture and social memory. Because of their origin and condition, social prejudice is even greater. Yet, the cause of refugees has been overlooked by the human rights movement and advocates because they have a zero-sum orientation and fear to compete with refugees for public attention and resources. On the other hand, the vast majority of Brazilians either ignores the existence of refugees in the country or views them as “criminals” and “delinquents”.
Since the beginning of the creation of international policies for the protection of refugees, Brazil has assumed a position of leadership, being the first country in the South Cone to ratify the 1951 UN Convention regarding the Statute of Refugees. Despite this fact, the social, economic and political context of the scenario is characterized by serious barriers imposed by the Foreigners Law, created during the military dictatorship, and by bureaucratic imperatives which act as obstacles towards the effectiveness of the law.
According to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in Brazil there are close to 3,458,000 recognized refugees, the largest group coming from the African continent with half of them, 1,751,000, from Angola. The population of refugees in the country has nearly doubled in the last six years (UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2005). According to recent data published online by the Brazilian Ministry of Justice, though unofficial, there is a contingency of almost 836,000 regular immigrants and 200,000 people who remain illegally in the country. In recent years the response of the Brazilian State to this issue has been a restrictive immigration politics of selective character. There are many restrictions related to permission to work, recognition of foreign diplomas, salaries and employment conditions, access to health services, education, housing and minimum citizenship. Those who seek to have their situation legalized in the country face a long waiting list and excessive bureaucracy in the expedition of their basic civil documents. These bureaucratic barriers are also present in access to social programs managed by public institutions, under the justification that these public policies are reserved for native Brazilians. The social scenario that results from these and many other difficulties is that of severe unemployment and misery, despite the fact that, in theory, the Law protects their right to work in the country. In the access to education and employment, there are virtually no governmental programs that take them in account at the same time as they are impeded to access the ones that exist for Brazilians, such as affirmative action.
Despite sparse initiatives by religious organizations, very little of this scenario is changing in Brazil. This is partly because these organizations fail to respond effectively to the problem—being oriented toward charity and base their work solely on social assistance.
Globally, recent studies reveal that this scenario will be severely aggravated in the next decades due to the so-called “climate refugees.” According to the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), the warming of the planet will cause a massive exodus of millions of people, expelled from their homelands due to drought and disease. The numbers may reach 50 million refugees by 2010 and up to 150 million by 2050. A study conducted in 2000 by the Red Cross estimated that 25 million people were on the verge of migrating due to the deterioration of their environment, almost reaching the same number of refugees fleeing armed conflicts. The traditional hosts of refugees, such as Europe, will not be able to accommodate this increased flow of human migration.
Ngury’s work is creating strategies that show public authorities and society how to deal with the issue of refugees. His organization, the Center for the Defense of Refugees’ Human Rights (CEDHUR), develops projects with an approach that has become a reference in the field. His strategies are based on five new visions that he brings to the issue: 1) True legitimacy—his work starts with the motivation of empowering his peers, in an endogenous approach, fully legitimate and coherent with his personal background 2) New concept—he redefines the concept of refugees under a human rights orientation, breaking free from political judgments and public prejudice, showing how the refugee issue is derived from serious distortions of the global economy 3) Defense of rights—he forces the government to put in practice full citizenship rights for refugees, reorienting the Law of Foreigners and shifting the de facto refugee to a “refugee of rights” 4) New responsibilities—he shows that everyone is responsible for the human migration across the globe, and engages all three sectors to embrace their roles and take action; 5) New world conjuncture—he brings new alternatives to refugee host countries in a context of intense human migration, likely to aggravate due to climate change in the coming years.
Because refugees in Brazil have no political representation or rights for civic participation such as voting, CEDHUR, created and composed of refugees would need to operate under severe constraints. Therefore, Ngury tactfully identified guarantors who could carry their demands and ideas into the public sphere; increasing the possibility for action. This is done through solidarity collaborations with other citizen organizations and social movements in order for them to include the issue of refugees in their praxis, indirectly representing the refugees. Ngury has established strategic partnerships with several of these movements and organizations, and depending on the specific issue he seeks to attack, makes use of their networks, platforms, and agendas, to bring visibility and effectiveness to his cause. For example, he identified the Afro-Brazilian movement as a potential advocate of their cause and skillfully revealed their common identities.
With the public sector, Ngury is raising awareness of public agents through an advocacy effort in the National Congress. This way, he is able to modify the behavior of public authorities, receiving political support from the Human Rights Commission of the Federal Government and the State Legislative Assembly of Minas Gerais, as well as the Mayor of Belo Horizonte and several state deputies. He strengthens these advocacy activities again, through the articulation with social movements and organizations; creating common agendas that incorporate the refugees’ demands in the process of political mobilization.
On the public level and with respect to educational policies, Ngury established partnerships with important federal universities (UFMG, UFF, UFJF) for the entry of refugees and guarantees their stay with social assistance programs, such as room and board, stipends, and health care. Many immigrants come to Brazil as students able to identity with the Portuguese language (since most are from former Portuguese colonies) and access to senior public education can mean better chances for social integration. This experience has opened a proceeding that Ngury has managed to convert in to a national policy with the articulation of the Ministry of Education to the program, “Pro-Refuge”— National Program for the Educational Support of Refugees. This program aims to guarantee access to education and better conditions for refugees to conduct their studies in Brazil.
With respect to CEDHUR’s partnership with the private sector, the strategy is that of creating job opportunities for refugees and immigrants, especially in companies that have expressive economic relations in and with African countries. By using the argument of the social responsibility of these companies in the African context, connected to the Brazilian reality, he is able to open channels for negotiation and to sensitize the sector about their role in the process of human migration and conflicts. Ngury also takes advantage of a national law in Angola that rules on the hiring of at least 50 percent Angolans in foreign companies who operate in the country, in order to reinforce this role.
Ngury is also engaged in the juridical orientation of the refugees along with Center of Religious Statistics and Social Research (CERIS) under the Durban Action Program. He accessorizes and conducts asylum and refuge inquiries directly challenging the manipulation and centrality of the government and its bureaucratic instruments. He is also filling a gap in the social sector since most organizations have been focused on immigration issues and lack a transformative approach that truly represents refugees. Though cloaked, Ngury is revealing the problems that have dominated human rights and public policies in Brazil in addressing the issues of refugees.
In future, Ngury envisions new strategies, such as working with the media to divulge the situation of refugees and raising public awareness through nationwide campaigns. He also hopes to foment discussion about what the country’s role will be in the global dynamic of human migration in the coming years.
Manuel, best known as Ngury, was born in 1967 in the countryside of Angola and, when four years-old, became a war displaced child, having traveled for five months in search of safe places to settle. This war scenario forced Ngury to move several times, leaving school, relatives, and friends. The only constant in Ngury’s life was his political participation, initiated early in his childhood, where he took a leading position in youth groups. They visited hospitals, orphanages, factories, and widened their view on the central problems that the country faced. He also followed his father who was a great traditional leader in the country; responsible for the creation of the first cooperative of peasants in the post-war, that rendered better living conditions to many Angolans in Conda, South Kwanza province.
In the beginning of the 1990s, Angola signed a peace agreement and Ngury realized he could contribute to the process of democratization of the country and raise citizen awareness about human rights violations and injustice impregnated in political institutions. Ngury decided to dedicate himself to radio journalism, taking advantage of the establishment of independent radio stations. In 1991 he created the program “Juventude Presente” (Present Youth) that he referred to as “the new voice in your radio.” Through this program, he started speaking to the great leaders of Angola and discussed the role of youth in their new country. In two months the program had a record audience. It was an education program for citizens and aimed to positively influence youth education and development with respect to the new challenges the country was facing; such as free and democratic elections and a multiparty democratic political process.
In 1992, the first election took place in Angola and due to the proceeding political turmoil Ngury began to be persecuted all over the country. He stayed almost one year wandering from place to place until he received help from friends. With the support of Amnesty International and Caritas, in 1993, Ngury managed to leave Angola. He did not know his destiny until he boarded the flight, and when he arrived in Brazil, realized there were no laws to support political refugees—completely different from other countries in Europe. He only had the rights to an identification document and labor authorization.
When Ngury left Angola he was in the third year of his degree in Law, he had a job and a salary, but in his new country he received no aid to restart his life. Nevertheless, with the help of an Italian priest living in Belo Horizonte and World Vision, Ngury started to identify other refugees, and in 1994 he created an informal network to support refugees. This was a strategic way to force the State to take action on their behalf. In 2000, Ngury founded the Center for the Defense of Refugees’ Human Rights to work on this issue nationally.