Why Brazil is right to negotiate a refugee deal with the European Union

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Brazil Syrian Refugees
Syrian refugees at a mosque in São Paulo, Brazil

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While Brazil is largely seen as a source of problems nowadays, this week the country generated a positive reaction abroad when it emerged that negotiations are underway to bring more refugees to South America's largest nation. Brazil, which maintains an open-door policy and has already granted asylum to several thousand Syrians, is discussing ways to offer a home specifically to refugees who are already in Europe or who are on their way there -- provided that European governments pay for their integration in Brazil. The move is laudable and far-sighted for three reasons.

The responsibilities of a global actor

First and most importantly, as the world's seventh-largest economy, Brazil has the responsibility to play a proactive role as the international community deals with the worst refugee crisis and humanitarian disaster since World War II. More than 12 million Syrians have fled their homes, with more than 4 million outside of Syria's borders. The majority of them are in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, but a growing number is flooding into Europe, where societies are struggling to cope. More than one million refugees have entered Germany alone. In addition, 2.5 million Afghans and more than 1 million Somalis have fled their countries. With no end in sight, the situation has the potential to further undermine global stability and affect growth prospects across the world.

Considering Brazil’s population of 200 million, which includes 10 million people of Arabic descent, the country has the capacity to host tens of thousands of refugees, probably without seeing a significant surge in xenophobia. In 1900, 7.3 percent of Brazil's population were immigrants, today it is 0.3 percent and declining. By comparison, the foreign population of countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States is more than 10 percent and, in Australia, it is above 20 percent. Since Brazil would receive financial help to welcome and integrate the growing number of refugees, its global contribution would come without the costs usually associated to international leadership on such a sensitive issue.

Potential benefits for Brazil's flagging economy

Secondly, the arrival of a sizeable refugee community will help the country's economy by reducing Brazil’s chronic shortage of skilled workers and by boosting innovation. SEBRAE, which supports micro- and small companies in Brazil, has already announced it will offer courses for refugees to start their own business.

The United States serves as a powerful example: a brief look at the statistics shows the massive impact immigrants have on the US economy's capacity to innovate and generate jobs: some 40% of Fortune 500 firms were founded by immigrants or their children. So were the firms behind seven of the ten most valuable brands in the world. Although the foreign-born are only an eighth of the US population, a quarter of high-tech start-ups have an immigrant founder. Apple, Google, AT&T, Budweiser, Colgate, eBay, General Electric, IBM and McDonalds, owe their origin to a founder who was an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, is a child of an immigrant parent from Syria. Walt Disney also was the child of an immigrant (from Canada), as well as the founders of Oracle (Russia and Iran), IBM (Germany), Clorox (Ireland), Boeing (Germany), 3M (Canada) and Home Depot (Russia).

Baltimore's mayor Ms. Rawlings Blake, for example, has asked Barack Obama to bring more refugees to the United States. As she argued recently, welcoming outsiders is more than a question of charity. Refugees are an exceptionally “resilient” bunch. “They want a better life for them and their children, and they are willing to work for it,” the mayor says.

Hosting refugees boosts Brazil's soft power on a global scale

Finally, assuming leadership on the refugee issue would significantly boost Brazil's reputation abroad and help to partially offset the negative image its current economic crisis generates. With governments in Europe and the Middle East desperate to deal with the situation, actively seeking ways to bring more refugees to Brazil is likely to help the country in future negotiations with policy makers most affected by the crisis.

Integrating thousands of people in the midst of a deep economic and political crisis is far from easy. Yet CONARE, Brazil's National Committee for Refugees, and NGOs such as Caritas have already shown that Brazil is capable of helping thousands who have lost everything to start over again and that, together with Brazil's relatively open society, surely it can help many more.

Read also:

Entrevista: 'Brasil deveria receber 50 mil sírios' (BBC)

How Brazil loses the battle for international talent

The Refugee Crisis Presents a Chance for Emerging Countries Like Brazil to Be Players (New York Times)

Economic crisis cannot justify Brazil’s absence from global security debate

Photo credit: AP