By Cilene Tanaka
Many Brazilians living irregularly in the UK have applied for charity support to travel home since the start of lockdown. According to the UK-based charity Casa do Brasil, there is now a waiting list for flight tickets and financial support amongst Brazilian immigrants who are struggling to survive financially. Charity Director Vitoria Nabas, who is running the Voluntary Return project, said 22 people have been helped to return to their native country since 23 March.
“The amount of people getting in touch asking for financial help in order to eat, to pay rent, to live, is just crazy.
“There are people who got frightened by the coronavirus and want to go home saying ‘I don’t have healthcare here. I’m illegal so I want to go home.’
“People who are here legally have support from the British government so they can survive. They are claiming Universal Credit and self-employed benefits.”
One of the main issues that make it difficult for both government and charities to develop policies and offer help is the lack of data about the numbers of illegal Brazilians living here.
A study conducted by researchers at London’s Queen Mary University in 2007 found that an estimated 56 per cent of 400 Brazilians were living illegally in the UK. Dr Yara Evans, Research Associate at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, led the 2007 study and said there is no up-to-date register for Brazilian immigrants. “It’s really difficult, this is a controversial subject because these are just estimates.”
“Sometimes I hear people saying, ‘well but the report says it’s 56 per cent of irregulars within the Brazilian population in the UK, but then, we have to say: ‘it’s not that. The sample is of only 400 people, so it’s 56% of those 400 people. You can extrapolate, but you cannot use it as data.”
In a bid to support those in need of institutional support, Dr Evans is hoping to launch a new data project in partnership with the Brazilian Consulate in London. “This is the chicken and the egg question. Because of this black hole that we don’t know about, of undocumented people, it is hard to tell,” she said. “Officially, we would have to compare the British official census data and interpolate it with the data from Brazilians who are registered with the Brazilian consulate.”
With the UK government progressively tightening control over immigration, the profile of Brazilian immigrants is changing from uneducated and low income, to university-educated and middle class. Such a radical change in demographic could mean that Brazilian irregular immigrants are no longer – if ever – the majority. Joanna, 34, entered the UK on a tourist visa two years ago with her daughter following her husband who had entered Britain in the same way, five months earlier. Now working as a cleaner, she is an old-fashioned type of Brazilian immigrant, an endangered species which, according to the world’s data trends, will never go extinct, regardless of how tough immigration laws become.
Joanna said: “We had lots of overdue rent. Our car had a court order for repossession, we had a debt from my mother in law’s loan that was overdue. We had a lot of bills and we were not able to settle them.
“Thank God, after some eight months here, we paid all the bills. Everything, I think, added up to more than £3,000.” Both Joanna and her husband, a 35 year-old construction worker, had to stop working and are currently living on between £70 and £100 per week.
Their landlord has been kind enough to offer them a rental payment break but the couple know they will not be able to survive financially without work and don’t want to build up rent arrears.
They made the choice to live irregularly in a foreign country for a chance of a better life. Joanna said:
“In Brazil, you have to choose: you either buy stuff for the house or pay the bills, or you eat McDonalds. I think it had been some five years since I last ate McDonalds when I got here.”
Since arriving in the UK, they have relied on the support of other Brazilians to find work, a home and even to order at McDonalds, but they never learnt of or had assistance from a charity or other organisation for people like them.
In contrast to the ‘new wave’ of regular immigrants, irregulars like Joanna and her husband can never become highly qualified professionals and are destined to work informally for as long as they remain in the UK. Dr Evans said:
“The dynamic of immigration here is that people don’t stay long, and they don’t get the resources to engage and to offer better service. We don’t see a community. I haven’t seen many help groups. I don’t see much self-organisation.”
Meanwhile, Vitoria Nabas believes the Brazilian community is relatively new in comparison to the one in the United States, which explains the lack of institutional support. “Illegal immigration of Brazilians to the United Kingdom is something new, whereas illegal immigration to the United States is matured. “I believe that we have different historical moments: you have a Brazilian community in the United States which has matured. It’s the biggest Brazilian community in the world.
“Because it has a mature 40 to 50-year-old structure, people have started getting organised much longer ago.” Regardless of all the obstacles, people like Joanna and her family will still make the choice of living irregularly in the UK. And they will continue to find zero support until there is reliable data about people like them.
“My dream is to get a document here so that we can live in peace and live happily,” said Joanna. “Then we will be able to travel and see our families.”
Resisting through adversity is a decision Joanna is glad to have made for her eight-year-old daughter, whose asthma attacks got better and who is learning English in order to have a career back home once she grows up.
“I spoke to the Lord: ‘Lord, is it time to go home, I can’t take it anymore.’ Then, he spoke: ‘It’s the time of God. It is not yet time to go back.’ And then I felt such peace in my heart. I will wait a bit longer.”