PACARAIMA, Brazil, (Reuters) – Fearful Venezuelan immigrants lined up in smaller numbers to enter Brazil today at the only border crossing between the two countries one day after violent protests by Brazilian residents drove hundreds back across the frontier.
The Brazilian army, which reinforces security at the Pacaraima border post, said 1,200 Venezuelans, including women and children, fled back into Venezuelan on Saturday when residents went on a rampage after the stabbing and beating of a local shop owner.
The angry demonstrators destroyed tents used by Venezuelans to camp out in the street near the bus station and set fire to belongings the immigrants left behind.
“The Brazilians came running with sticks and bottles. They burnt all our things, even the children’s clothes,” said Joana Perez, a 24-year-old mother holding a 6-month-old baby. “I’m scared. I don’t know where to sleep tonight or if there will be another attack. We lost everything. All I have is my ID card.”
The outburst was triggered by the severe beating of a shop owner by four alleged Venezuelan immigrants on Friday, the state government said. But police declined to comment and had still not found the suspects on Sunday.
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have poured over the border into Roraima state over the last few years, fleeing economic and political turmoil in their country. The influx has overwhelmed the state’s social services and brought a rise in crime, prostitution and disease, and has sparked incidents of xenophobia, Brazilian government officials say.
“About 1,200 Venezuelans went back to their country yesterday. The flow has restarted today but evidently there are less people coming,” Colonel Hilel Zanatta, commander of the army operation at the border post, told Reuters.
A Reuters photographer who crossed into Venezuela on Sunday morning to the border town of Santa Helena de Uairen said the streets were crowded with thousands of people seeking to leave the country but fearful of a hostile reception in Brazil.
Venezuela’s government said the attacks on its citizens were fueled by xenophobia and called on Brazil to protect the immigrants and their belongings.
The Brazilian border state of Roraima repeated a call to close the border, which the federal government has refused to do for humanitarian reasons.
Instead, President Michel Temer announced after meeting with cabinet members on Sunday an increase from 31 to 151 in the contingent of soldiers helping keep order at the border and will speed up moving Venezuelan immigrants to other Brazilian states.