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Brazil's Troubling Outward Migration

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Increasing outward migration reflects a difficult present and future for Brazil

June 2021

Japan, the United States, the European Union are all highly advanced, developed economies with high salaries with much and relatively low levels of violent crime. Not coincidentally, these are the places where a large majority of the two and a half million Brazilians who live outside of Brazil have settled. To arrive in these places, many Brazilians go the legal route with work visas or double nationality acquired thanks to ancestors who immigrated to Brazil. Others overstay a tourist visa or cross a physical border on foot and thus live and work without documentation.

The educational and professional backgrounds generally dictate the way in which Brazilians migrate. Those who are well educated are often able to obtain legal status while others are less educated, less well-paid laborers and often (but not always) live undocumented. Indeed, the wide range of Brazilians abroad and how they migrate reflects the socio-economic and racial diversity of Brazilian society itself.

Regardless of their backgrounds, however, almost all leave to improve their quality of life -- including better salaries, superior career and educational opportunities that are scarce in Brazil, lower living costs, safer streets. The reasons Brazilians emigrate from Brazil point to a nation with a profoundly pessimistic population and does not view a bright future in Brazil. The exodus of workers -- especially those who are well-educated -- hurts Brazil as many of its best and brightest use their talents to further improve a foreign nation rather than Brazil.

Legal Routes to Europe

In 2018 Paulo, a resident of the city of São Paulo, was desperate to find work. Trained as a petroleum engineer, the relatively low-price of oil has, combined with Brazil’s multi-year economic crisis, led him to give up on finding work in Brazil. Paulo, fortunately, has an Italian passport and thus can live anywhere in the European Union. He was preparing for a job hunting trip to Europe.

Paulo, like tens of thousands of other Brazilians, has a European Union passport thanks to his Italian grandparents. He, like many others who have received an EU passport, were not born EU citizens. Rather, they apply to claim their right by submitting documentation proving their lineage. Other Brazilians have obtained EU citizenship by living legally in Portugal for five years, at which point they can apply for Portuguese citizenship. The number of Brazilians receiving EU citizenship from 2002 to 2017 went up 800 percent and totaled 170,000.

The reasons for legal Brazilian migration to Europe are multi-faceted and reflect the complex social problems facing Brazil. A Brazilian single mom in Lisbon told me that Portugal’s lower-cost of living, far less violent crime, better public education, and higher wages make Portugal a far more attractive place to live and raise a child.

Another Brazilian considering leaving Brazil for Portugal told me he dreams of being able to allow his kid to go to a good public school. He says that in Brazil the public education system is inadequate and thus they pay to send their child to private school (it is very common for the middle classes to send their children to private schools in Brazil and much of Latin America, adding an extra expense to already tight budgets). In Portugal, his impression is that the free public schools will be of a higher quality thus saving him and his wife the private school tuition. He and his family have friends who have immigrated to Portugal and tell of how much better the public education is and how their life has improved in general. (To immigrate, he first needs a Portuguese employment contract which would then allow him to obtain a work visa and after five years citizenship.)

Many of the Brazilians who have moved to Europe and obtained citizenship are, in comparison with the predominantly working-class migrants of the 1980s and 1990s, well-educated and of the middle and upper-classes. Moreover, in contrast to the Brazilian migrants of the 1980s and 1990s, many of today’s migrants to Europe leave Brazil with little intention to return. (Not all work in jobs demanding education; Brazilians have told me there is demand in Portugal for workers in call centers and security guards as well. Portugal currently has an aging population and significant numbers of young workers leaving to work in higher paying European nations.)

Living Undocumented in the United States and Europe

At the same time, as of 2021 tens of thousands of Brazilians live without legal authorization in the United States and Europe. The key for a secure life abroad is legal authorization to live and work and those Brazilians without it lead a precarious existence.

The insecurity of an undocumented existence was made all the more clear with the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic. BBC Brasil interviewed a Brazilian who lived in London and, in the midst of the government quarantine in 2020, could not work regularly nor access government medical or benefits for workers. This undocumented Brazilian decided to voluntarily deportation to Brazil -- paid for by the British government -- to escape his difficult situation. The decision to voluntarily leave the United Kingdom was difficult because he went abroad with the hope to aid his family through remittances. He sees little economic opportunity in Brazil -- the reason he left in the first place.

Undocumented Brazilians in the United States have an equally difficult situation magnified and worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the Brazilian online magazine Publica, undocumented Brazilians in the United States have been not only afraid of catching Covid but the enormous medical bills they would uninsured patients in the U.S. medical system. Similar to the undocumented Brazilian in the United Kingdom profiled by BBC Brasil, many undocumented Brazilians in the United States -- working manual labor jobs that became more inconsistent -- also significantly saw their incomes decline as a result of the pandemic.

Despite the difficulty for undocumented Brazilians in the United States, pull factors continue to bring Brazilians to the world’s largest economy. Many Brazilians hope that under the Biden administration, there is a greater chance of having their undocumented status legalized. Moreover, the possibility of greatly enlarging one’s earning power is another strong pull. For those who are denied a tourist or student visa (many Brazilians obtain these visas with the intention of overstaying them and working long-term in the United States), they fly to Mexico and attempt to cross the border from there. As of June 2021, 150 Brazilians a day are being detained by U.S. immigration officials at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In addition, the U.S. economy is far stronger than Brazil’s which, as of early 2021, was estimated to hit over 14 percent unemployment. Moreover, many undocumented Brazilian immigrants in the United States -- like those who legally immigrate to Europe -- hope for better educational opportunities in the United States for their children. Lastly, as of June 2021 Covid is far from controlled in Brazil and vaccinations are progressing slowly. Migrating from Brazil to the United States is an opportunity to leave a country whose health and economic situation are devastated for one that offers hope in spite of challenges for the undocumented.

Unfortunately for undocumented Brazilians living abroad, the Bolsonaro government has turned its back on them. In 2019, President Bolsonaro called Brazilians who lived abroad without legal status an “embarrassment” to Brazil. Bolsonaro also pulled Brazil out of the United Nations’ Global Compact for Migration which, according to analysts, weakens Brazil’s ability to advocate for its citizens abroad.

Brazilian Migration to Japan

Over 100 years ago, Japanese immigrants migrated to Brazil to work on coffee plantations and escape an economically precarious situation in Brazil. Currently, many ancestors of these immigrants are returning to Japan to flee Brazil’s increasingly difficult economic situation and rising criminality. Brazilians of Japanese descent are called dekasseguis and began migrating to Japan in the late 1980s and early 1990s during an Brazilian economic crisis. Many once again returned to Japan after saving money and Brazil’s economy improved. Every time Brazil’s economy has dipped in the last few decades, many again return to Japan. Many have gone back and forth between the countries multiple times in the last few decades.

Brazilian migrants to Japan have traditionally worked in lower paying, manual labor jobs despite having high levels of education in Brazil. Some are bucking this trend, however, as more Brazilians in Japan are entering white collar professions like law (many recent arrivals in Japan still work in manual labor, though). Despite the improving job prospects for some, many Brazilian migrants in Japan still face discrimination across society and children often suffer bullying at school. Despite the challenges for Brazilians in Japan, however, the benefits are attractive enough for many given Brazil’s difficult situation.

An employment agency recruiting Brazilians to work in Japan in São Paulo

Brain Drain, Threat to Brazil, and Global Trend

The movement of highly educated Brazilians to Japan who then work in manual labor jobs is part of a larger brain drain that Brazil is experiencing. Brazilian scientists have, in recent years, left Brazil in increasing numbers for the United States, Canada and Europe. The cause of the migration is Brazil’s underfunded scientific research which leads to poorly paid or unemployed scientists and a lack of scholarships for science students.

The exit of scientific knowledge is all the more concerning given how few Brazilians have doctorates. The number of people with doctorates in Brazil is 7 per 100,000 inhabitants, well below that of the United States with over 20 and some European countries with over 30. Unfortunately for Brazil, the number of educated professionals leaving Brazil has increased 40 percent during the Bolsonaro government. A society with high levels of violent crime and recent cuts to scientific research funding have contributed to the acceleration of Brazil’s brain drain.

Brazil’s brain drain is part of a larger international phenomenon where developing nations invest resources to educate their youth only to see them leave to work and contribute to developed countries’ societies. Brain drains further global economic inequality which, as Thomas Erdsall of The New York Times points out, may further the attraction of populist demagogues like Jair Bolsonaro.

The story of Brazil’s immigration is a story of global inequality and a vicious cycle. The profound challenges facing Brazil -- poor scientific funding, a disastrous Covid response, violent crime, inadequate public education, high cost of living and low wages -- have led to a general pessimism and hopelessness which then drives Brazilians to leave the nation. Brazilians who leave set an example for others to follow. With fewer people invested in improving Brazil -- especially those who are well-educated -- the country will struggle to improve and more will continue to look abroad. In an increasingly globalized world, the future for an ever more dysfunctional Brazil is indeed bleak.

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