‘Sanitary refugees’: Paraguayan migrants stranded at the border during COVID-19
Jáfia Naftali Câmara
Câmara, Jáfia Naftali. 2021. ‘Sanitary refugees’: Paraguayan migrants stranded at the border during COVID-19. MoLab Inventory of Mobilities and Socioeconomic Changes. Department ‘Anthropology of Economic Experimentation’. Halle/Saale: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology.
Download via DOI: https://doi.org/10.48509/MoLab.6416
When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in South America, Paraguay and Brazil chose two very different approaches to deal with it. While Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro minimised the seriousness of COVID-19 and urged state governments to lift mobility restrictions, Paraguay’s government implemented a full lockdown and closed its borders, preventing its own citizens from entering the country, even if on foot. In the following days, a large number of Paraguayans tried to return home after losing their jobs in Brazil due to the pandemic. However, they had to stay in limbo, stranded on the Ponte Internacional da Amizade (‘International Friendship Bridge’), which connects the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu to the Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este.
Paraguay implemented strict border controls starting on 18 March 2020 and sent soldiers to its borders with Brazil to prevent the entry of cars and buses. On that day, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro asked his Paraguayan counterpart, Mario Abdo Benítez, to allow Brazilians crossing the border on foot to enter Paraguay. Bolsonaro told reporters that halting the movement of people between the twin cities of Ponta Porã, in Brazil, and Pedro Juan Caballero, in Paraguay, was not possible, adding that closing the borders was ‘hysterical’ and would not solve the problem. Bolsonaro’s pleas were unsuccessful and, by 24 March, Paraguay had closed its land borders with Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina.
On 8 April, Paraguayan security authorities installed a gate at the entrance of the Ponte da Amizade in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. The iron barrier was only installed in the Brazil-Paraguay direction, to prevent all pedestrians, Paraguayan and foreign, from entering Paraguay. On 9 April, a group of 51 Paraguayan nationals who arrived at the Ponte da Amizade were not permitted to enter their country. According to the Paraguayan Navy, it was unclear when the group would be allowed into Ciudad del Este.
Since Paraguay has a precarious health system and limited resources, Abdo’s government chose to prioritise border control. However, border closures and health and safety procedures meant that many Paraguayans were unable to receive a timely authorisation from their government to enter the country as they arrived at the border. As a result, many Paraguayan nationals ended up stranded on the Ponte da Amizade for several days.
Pandemic refugees ‘living’ on the Ponte da Amizade
Paraguay adopted a standard health procedure, requiring every returnee to quarantine for 14 days before travelling on to their homes. The Paraguayan government expected more than 25,000 Paraguayans to return home during the pandemic, and established dozens of shelters, adapting sports centres and warehouses to quarantine those arriving from abroad. However, Paraguay faced challenges to repatriate all returnees because the shelters were precarious and did not have the capacity to timely accommodate all. There were also COVID-19 outbreaks in the shelters, which slowed down the process of repatriation even more.
Insufficient quarantine spaces led to long queues on the bridge between the two countries, and some Paraguayans had to spend several days ‘living’ on the bridge, facing rain and cold weather.
Official information about the accurate number of people stranded on the bridge differed between Brazilian and Paraguayan sources. As overcrowding aggravated the situation on the Ponte da Amizade, Brazil’s Federal Highway Police (PRF) reported on 20 April that there were about 81 people at one point trying to return to their country, while the Paraguayan Consulate in Foz do Iguaçu announced that over 150 Paraguayans were waiting to return home. A newspaper reported that there were 200 Paraguayan nationals stuck on the bridge. Two days later, one news outlet stated that more than 100 Paraguayans were waiting on the bridge, while another outlet said about 300 Paraguayans were there around the same time.
The Paraguayan government eventually made an exception and allowed some groups of Paraguayans to enter the country as the bridge became increasingly overcrowded. However, those who were still arriving at the Ponte da Amizade did not know whether or when they would be able to return home. Moreover, Paraguayans who had left Brazil and crossed the bridge into the Paraguayan side were not allowed to return to São Paulo or other regions of Brazil, due to the mobility restrictions imposed by Brazilian authorities.
Brazilian diplomats categorised those stranded on the bridge as ‘sanitary refugees’, pointing out that Paraguay’s measures were not in accordance with humanitarian principles as some Paraguayans were ‘living’ on the pedestrian pathway over the Paraná river. According to Brazilian authorities, Paraguayan nationals stuck on the bridge were permitted to use the bathroom and drink water at Brazilian customs in Foz do Iguaçu. The Paraguayan Navy also provided water, food, and access to toilets to those waiting; nevertheless, it was reported that many Paraguayans staying on the bridge did not have masks, hand sanitiser, or suitable conditions to maintain hygiene. Brazilian volunteers helped them access hygiene services and food as well.
Gradually reopening the borders
On 16 September, Brazil and Paraguay signed a bilateral act allowing trade to partially resume between the border cities of Foz do Iguaçu and Ciudad del Este, Mundo Novo and Salto del Guairá, and Ponta Porã and Pedro Juan Caballero. This agreement to reopen borders and potentially save jobs also included the condition that both countries would maintain some mobility restrictions and implement health measures to contain the spread of coronavirus.
After being closed for almost seven months, the Ponte Internacional da Amizade started to gradually reopen. To prepare for this, the city of Foz do Iguaçu created a contingency plan and requested the Brazilian Ministry of Health to expand the capacity of the city’s Intensive Care Unit as they expected that Paraguayans would seek medical care there. Furthermore, the city requested the federal government to assist in implementing a mobile health unit on the Brazilian side of the Ponte da Amizade. As movement across the bridge partially resumed, Paraguay also implemented a health protocol establishing that vehicles could only cross the bridge between 5 am and 2 pm, while pedestrian movement remained prohibited for an additional 15 days.
The Paraguayan government took another step towards reopening its borders on 30 October 2020, allowing pedestrians to walk across the border between Brazil and Paraguay. The only remaining restriction was that non-Paraguayan nationals would only be allowed to access up to 30 km into Paraguay from the border. Non-residents and tourists wishing to travel further into the country now have to go through immigration control procedures and follow the sanitary requirements of the Ministry of Public Health. Upon arrival, these travellers are also required to fill out a form with their health information, vaccination background, COVID-19 test result, and the address where they would be staying for 21 days. Furthermore, the 14-day quarantine requirement for all people entering Paraguay has remained in place throughout the pandemic.
Paraguayan poet Augusto Roa Bastos once wrote that Paraguay is ‘una isla rodeada de tierra’ (‘an island surrounded by land’) in the heart of the continent. For the land-locked ‘island’, Brazil represented the greatest threat during the COVID-19 pandemic as President Jair Bolsonaro consistently downplayed the seriousness of the situation. Therefore, Paraguay adopted strict border restrictions. Nevertheless, neither Paraguay nor Brazil were prepared to timely accommodate Paraguayan nationals who ended up stuck on the Ponte da Amizade and unable to go either way for several days.
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