RIO DE JANEIRO — Residents of a border town in northern Brazil that has become a main entry point for Venezuelans seeking refuge destroyed migrant camps over the weekend in one of the most dramatic instances of a backlash to the Venezuelans’ growing presence there.
After squatter camps in the border town of Pacaraima came under attack on Saturday, as many as 1,200 Venezuelans who feared for their safety rushed back into the country they had fled, military officials said.
The unrest in the main municipality along the border between Brazil and Venezuela began after the family of a local merchant told the authorities that he had been assaulted by a group of Venezuelans on Friday night, according to residents and officials. The authorities said on Sunday that the assailants’ identity and nationality had not been confirmed.
On Saturday morning, residents of Pacaraima took to the streets to protest the toll the surge of migrants has taken on their quality of life. They blamed government officials for doing too little to manage the influx.
“The aim was not to target Venezuelans, but rather to decry the absence of the state in our town,” said João Kleber Soares Borges, 38, a member of the Commercial Association of Pacaraima. “It’s inconceivable that there is so much money to address the migration issue but there’s no money to help us.”
At one point, some protesters, with bullhorns in hand, began chanting against Venezuelans, and a peaceful protest devolved into an impromptu assault on the migrants’ dwellings, according to videos shot by residents that were collected by Érica Figueredo, a local television journalist.
Some demonstrators burned tents. One man used a bulldozer to tear down an informal shelter as local residents cheered in support. Panicked Venezuelans bundled their belongings in bags and lined up at the border crossing to head back to their country. At one point, some Venezuelans ran for the hills as Brazilians chased them.
The Rev. Jesús López Fernández de Bobadilla, a Spanish priest who said he had lived in Pacaraima for nine years, said the outburst should not come as a surprise given the strain the migration crisis has put on the town of 12,000.
In recent weeks, as many as 800 Venezuelans have crossed into Pacaraima each day. Many remain there for long periods because they are too poor or too sick to head toward larger cities.
Still, Father de Bobadilla said, “Pacaraima is offering a truly shameful example of intense and violent xenophobia.”
Brazil has admitted tens of thousands of the roughly 2.3 million Venezuelans who have fled their country in recent years as the exodus spurred by hyperinflation, chronic food and medicine shortages, and rising insecurity has picked up pace. While the Brazilian federal government has said it would continue to take in migrants, local officials in border communities have said the open-door policy is unsustainable as schools and hospitals become overrun.
The office of the governor of Roraima State, which includes Pacaraima, said in a statement over the weekend that federal officials should temporarily close the border and transfer migrants to other states.
While countries in the region have largely embraced Venezuelans, several governments have been overwhelmed by the scale of the migration crisis, one of the largest Latin America has faced. Ecuador declared a state of emergency earlier this month as the number of Venezuelans entering the country each day exceeded 4,000.
Col. Hilel Zanatta, who heads the Brazilian military task force that is managing the refugee intake process in Pacaraima, said the border had reopened by Sunday after what he called “a very tense day.”
“Operations are happening normally, both for people coming and going to Venezuela,” he said.
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