Luiz Ruffato

Luiz Ruffato
Photo: Tadeu Vilani

What does the term refugee mean to you?

A refugee is someone who is forced to leave the country he was born in, due to war, political or ethnic persecution or on grounds of conscience. I believe that this also applies to everyone fleeing from distress and famine in their country of origin.

Is flight from poverty less legitimate than flight from war or political oppression?

Poverty is the consequence of economic disorganization, most of the time caused by corruption and the concentration of profit in the hands of a few. The poorer a country’s population is, the less access they have to education, health care, public local transport and recreation, and the more they suffer from violence. In some countries, everyday violence in the cities or in the countryside kills more people than are currently killed by numerous wars, and continuous hardship as well as poor education are instruments of political suppression. Brazil, for instance, registered sixty thousand homicides in 2014; the same numbers of people die in Syria’s civil war each year on the average. In Brazil, there are 32.4 murders per one hundred thousand inhabitants, a dimension which is rated as an epidemic by the World Health Organization, and most victims are male (92 %), young, meaning they are between 15 and 19 years old (54 %), and black (77 %). A survey called “Inequality Atlas” shows that life expectancy for a resident of São Paulo’s richer neighborhoods is higher by 25 years on the average than life expectancy for residents of the poor peripheral areas of the same city.

And what about flight as a result of environmental problems?

Environmental problems are the result of boundless greed. The so-called developed countries incite the supposedly developing countries to produce more and more foodstuffs for export (to do more and more farming and livestock farming), and to exploit more and more plant and mineral resources, thus destroying large parts of their natural surface, and in return, to import industrialized products such as motor vehicles which are extremely harmful to the environment. Brazil which is governed by an unscrupulous elite, systematically destroys virgin forests (and not only in the Amazonas region; it’s only the most visible there), and the Cerrado savannah landscape, for soybean production, livestock farming for meat production and for precious wood logging. In addition, our industrialization goes hand in hand with an uncontrolled growth of the cities, and as a result, rivers are polluted, eco systems are destroyed, there are inhabitable slums and urban violence. The destruction of nature is directly connected to the irresponsible handling of natural resources because of the eager consumerism of the rich countries which feeds corruption and the concentration of profit in the poorer countries.

When does one cease to be a refugee?

The trauma caused by uprooting is incredibly painful. At all times, refugees carry the feeling of not belonging inside themselves and therefore, they must constantly reestablish their identity. To leave does not only mean to leave behind a landscape, a language, eating habits, a life style, all these things. Above all, going away entails cutting ties to one’s forebears, breaking with history’s continuity. I once talked to a Jewish lady in Zurich who told me, with this kind of typical sense of humor, that is was not too difficult to overcome the pain of migration (or emigration, it doesn’t make a difference), that one would only suffer from it for the first 50 years, at the most.

Is there a natural right to asylum?

Yes. And if not for other reasons, then only because we are all refugees, in the end. Europe, for instance, as we know it today, is the result of numerous wanderings of entire populations in the course of history, triggered by wars, epidemics, poverty, natural disasters, ethnic, political, religious, cultural persecution. It is the ethical duty of humans to protect their kind from danger, whatever that danger may be, not least because the so-called developed countries, and especially Europe and the United States, are directly responsible for a large part of the refugees in the world, because of the economic disorganization which they encouraged and continue to encourage with their behavior which is aimed at geopolitical hegemony.

If yes: is this right unconditional, or can it be forfeited?

The right to asylum should go as far as possible even if there may be restrictions – which nevertheless must never be collective but individual, at the most. For instance, one could reject the application of a person who (for ideological, religious or ethnic reasons) calls for hatred, but never refuse entire communities or the followers of this ideology or this religion or members of this ethnic group.

Do you think that the number of refugees a society can absorb is limited?

Yes, the economic or social realities of each country should be taken into consideration.

If yes: where do you draw the line, and why?

Upon arrival, refugees must at least be offered a minimum of humane conditions, meaning accommodation, food, social and psychological care, language and cultural training and, above all, a chance for integration. Otherwise, they will be merely pushed onto the margins, to the sidelines, instead of doing something about their situation – and this not only downgrades their lives but possibly also creates a new problem for the society receiving them.

Are there privileged refugees in your country, i.e. refugees that are more welcome than others? If yes: why?

Although it signed the most important international human rights agreements, Brazil accepts only few refugees. In accordance with the Brazilian government’s national refugee council, Brazil registers 8,863 refugees from 79 different nations, among them 70 % men. The majority of them originate in Syria (2,298), followed by Angola (1,429), Colombia (1,100), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (968) and Palestine (376). But if we include immigrants (meaning poor people fleeing from distress in their countries of origin), the picture looks entirely different: The two largest groups are Bolivians (officially between 30,000 and 60,000, in accordance with the information given by the Catholic Church’s Pastoral for Immigration) and Haitians (about 44,000 who came after the earthquake which destroyed their country in 2010).

Do refugees in your country receive fair treatment?

If we only consider classic refugees (those who are not immigrants), treatment is correct but has certain peculiarities, depending on the country of origin. For example, many Syrian and Palestinian nationals have relatives who live here already in established communities and who are often active as business people so that they are rapidly integrated into society – not least because they are white, whether Christian or Moslem. Brazil is a racist country. It is disparately more difficult for dark-skinned refugees (Angolans, Congolese) and immigrants with black skin (Haitians) or of indigenous origin (Bolivians) to establish themselves in the job market, and they are marginalized in everyday life.

Would cuts in the social security system in your country be acceptable to you if they were to facilitate the absorption of more refugees?

Brazil’s social system is already miserable as far as its own citizens are concerned so that deterioration would be impossible.

What are the requirements for successful integration?

- on the part of the refugees?
- on the part of the citizens of the host country?

The refugees must be able to maintain their own religious, linguistic and cultural particularities but should understand and accept the customs and practices of the new country. The citizens of the country receiving them must respect the particularities of the others and try to learn from them. This way, it’s enriching for both sides. As the writer Danilo Kiš says, reading many books creates wisdom but reading one book creates ignorance full of raving madness and hatred.

Do you know any refugees personally?

No. There are almost none in this gigantic country of Brazil.

Do you actively support any refugees?


How will the refugee situation in your country develop

a) over the next two years?
b) over the next two decades?

I cannot answer this question because we are talking here about politics and decisions at the highest level of government but I believe that nothing much will change in comparison to what is currently practiced - which is to do next to nothing in this regard.

Can you imagine a world without refugees?

Unfortunately not. Apparently, wars and their consequences - political, economic and social disorder - are an inalienable part of the history and course of mankind.

Have you or your family ever been refugee?

If we understand refugees also to be migrants – and I do – who are trying to escape poverty, then the answer is yes. My maternal grandparents fled from misery in Northern Italy (Veneto); my paternal grandparents fled from distress in the Portuguese hinterland and landed in Brazil at the end of the 19th century. Here, they encountered difficulties such as the climate, the authoritarianism of a society of slave owners, different customs and practices and, in the case of the Italians, a completely unknown language and cuisine.

Do you think you will ever be a one?

I do not believe that any one is able to categorically exclude becoming a refugee at some point in time. The world is strange and changes rapidly, especially when one lives in a third world country. As far as Brazil is concerned, politics is making trouble right now. We are but one step removed from the end of being a state that is under the rule of law – ideological groups are attacking each other, and what is most inconspicuous is intolerance. Also the Christian-Evangelical fundamentalists who are gaining influence to a disproportionate extent are characterized by intolerance. Our democracy is still young, meaning it is vulnerable, and the elite in Brazil is very attached to the privileges it has been enjoying ever since. So one can never exclude that I, too, might have to flee to another country in case of political regression. But the point is, as I said at the beginning, that one never is a refugee out of one’s own free will but always due to a lack of alternatives. Thus, it can never be foreseen, and one has to live and fight for a better world in which the idea of changing locations is merely based on the desire to get to know another culture and never on the necessity to break with one’s own.

How much “home” do you need?*

For me, home is my body – a small place in the world where I can completely be – connected to the world outside but delineated from it.

*This question was taken from Max Frisch’s questionnaire concerning “heimat”.