Urgent needs of refugees, vulnerable people surge in flood-hit Brazil

GENEVA — As Brazil’s heavily flooded southern state of Rio Grande do Sul braces for a weekend of intense rain, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, is calling for greater support to help tens of thousands of refugees, who are among the most vulnerable people affected by the disaster.

“Those affected include some 41,000 refugees and others in need of international protection, including many Venezuelans and Haitians who live in the affected areas — some of [whom] can only be reached by boat,” William Spindler, UNHCR spokesperson, told journalists Friday in Geneva.

According to local authorities, at least 126 people have died in the floods, 141 are missing, about 2 million people are adversely affected, and more than 400,000 are homeless.

Spindler said the UNHCR, in coordination with local authorities, is distributing relief items such as blankets and mattresses, noting that additional relief items such as emergency shelters, kitchen sets, solar lamps and hygiene kits are being sent to Brazil.

“In the coming days, UNHCR will be supporting the issuance of documentation, where it has been lost or damaged, to guarantee refugees and asylum-seekers continue to access social benefits and public services,” he said.

Spindler noted that refugees do not live in camps separated from the population, but that they live with the host communities, under the same conditions in which the local inhabitants live.

“So, it is the host communities that is the focus of our support. … We need to strengthen their capacity, so they can continue to host refugees. That means strengthening social services, access to education, to health, and so on for the local people, as well as the refugees,” he said.

The UNHCR estimates $3.21 million is needed to support the most urgent needs, including direct financial assistance to flood-affected people and the provision of essential relief items.

Brazil is a country prone to natural disasters. It has been subject to more frequent and devastating extreme weather events in recent years, including droughts in the Amazon region and severe rains in Bahia and Acre states.

A report issued this week by the World Meteorological Organization on the state of the climate in Latin America and the Caribbean highlights the vulnerability of the entire region to extreme weather and climate change impacts in 2023.

The authors of the report say it is difficult to know whether conditions this year will be worse. But WMO spokesperson Clare Nullis observes that for those affected by the disastrous floods in Brazil, “2024 is an absolutely record-breaking bad year.”

She emphasized that the flooded area is huge. “It is massive, and it really will undermine the socio-economic development in that entire area for a long time to come.”

She said El Nino, a weather phenomenon that warms ocean surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean, is playing a major role in the floods in Brazil, as it also is in the floods in Eastern Africa.

“On top of that, you have got climate change. … It is a double whammy of El Nino and climate change. And that is what we are seeing in Brazil right now. Even when El Nino fades, which it will do, the long-term effects of climate change are with us,” she said.

“Our weather is on steroids,” Nullis said, adding that every fraction of a degree of global warming means “our weather will become more extreme.”

The UNHCR’s Spindler noted severe climate events disproportionately affect refugees and other people requesting international protection. Therefore, he said it is important to work on prevention and to focus on populations that are most at risk.

“The impact of climate change affects everybody, but some individuals and communities are in a more vulnerable situation,” he said, noting that refugees and migrants are most imperiled because they are not from the country in which they are living.

“They come from other countries, and that means they do not have the same social networks, family and so on that nationals have.

“Often, they are living in areas that are more exposed to risks. So, they are impacted in a more disproportionate way by these events,” he said, underscoring that not enough funding is available to address the impact of climate change nor “to address the needs of those forcibly displaced, nor the communities hosting them.”

“Without help to prepare for, withstand and recover from climate-related shocks, they face an increased risk of further displacement,” he warned.

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