Scores of Afghan refugees marooned at Brazilian airport

By Jon Martin Cullell

Sao Paulo, Jun 29 (EFE).- Scores of Afghans attracted to Brazil by the offer of humanitarian visas to people fleeing the Taliban have end up stuck at Sao Paulo International Airport waiting for authorities to find them shelter.

And a recent outbreak of scabies among the 206 refugees living in a second-floor hallway in a corner of South America’s busiest air terminal has raised concerns about a public health crisis.

One of the stranded travelers is 39-year-old Navid Haidari, who worked for NATO as a translator during the nearly 20 years that United States forces were in Afghanistan.

Fearing retribution after the Taliban returned to power, he, his wife, and their four children walked 38 hours to reach Iran and once in Tehran, they headed for the Brazilian Embassy.

In September 2021, the month after the fall of the US-backed government in Kabul, Brazil said it would issue humanitarian visas to Afghans fleeing the Taliban and allow them to apply for residence or refugee status in the South American nation.

While 405 Afghans applied for asylum in Brazil last year, 311 did so during just the first five months of 2023.

Many of them have arrived in Sao Paulo to be told that the reception centers are full and that the only shelter available to them is the airport hallway, staffed not by public employees but by volunteers.

“I thought there were going to be reception centers and it surprised me to see this,” Haidari tells EFE.

“We don’t have anywhere to wash plates or clothes and it’s difficult to sleep with the noise of the air conditioners, but it’s better than being on the street with the children,” he says.

Guarulhos, the municipality that hosts the airport, has only 177 beds available for migrants and refugees and all of them are filled.

Brazil’s justice minister, Flavio Dino, said Thursday that the refugees will be put up at hotels “until we construct a definitive policy to address this serious problem,” but did not specify when the Afghans will be moved to new lodging.

Alarm has grown since a physician sent by the Guarulhos municipal government discovered last week that the members of one of the Afghan families have scabies, a highly infective skin disease.

The volunteers aiding the refugees are demanding that authorities assume responsibility for the situation.

The scabies outbreak was a “tragedy foretold,” Afghan Collective Front coordinator Miguel Freire Couy says, pointing to the unhygienic conditions.

“We have spent nearly a year warning of the disgraceful conditions, but the relevant bodies just pass the hot potato back and forth among themselves,” he adds.

Haidari, who is looking forward to adding Portuguese to his repertoire of languages, hopes his family will soon get a place in a shelter, but tries to be philosophical about the risk from the scabies outbreak.

“We are a little afraid, but at least here the Taliban are no longer chasing us,” he says. EFE jmc/dr

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