Brazil legalizes 4,000 Haiti immigrants

Brazil granted residence visas Tuesday to 4,000 undocumented Haitian immigrants already in the country, while vowing to crack down on people-smuggling from the desperately poor Caribbean nation.

President Dilma Rousseff, who plans to visit Port-au-Prince on February 1, approved the move as Haiti prepares to mark the second anniversary of a 7.0-magnitude quake that killed between 200,000 and 300,000 people.

Some 15 percent of Haiti's entire population of almost 10 million were either killed or displaced by the January 12, 2010 quake, one of the worst natural disasters of modern times.

Brazil's move came in reaction to a large influx of Haitian immigrants, many of whom told human rights groups they were abused by traffickers in Peru and Bolivia before being smuggled into Latin America's economic powerhouse.

"Those who are already in Brazil will receive a residence visa," Rousseff's office said on its official blog, while stressing this was a one-off move and that all Haitians in future would require a visa for entry.

"The government will not be indifferent to the Haitians' vulnerable economic situation. But those who don't have a visa will not be allowed into Brazil," said Justice Minister Jose Cardozo.

He said 4,000 Haitians who were in the country illegally would receive permanent residence visas, including 1,600 who had already been given two-year humanitarian working visas.

The influx, which began in February 2010 shortly after Haiti was devastated by the quake, has been accelerating in recent days.

Most of the incoming Haitians have been assembling in the towns of Tabatinga and Brasileia in the states of Amazonas and Acre, bordering Peru.

Brazilian officials ordered tighter border vigilance and said they planned to raise the issue with their counterparts in neighboring Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.

"We have to crack down on this illegal immigration route and the action of the coyotes (traffickers)," said Cardozo.

Many of the migrants say they had to pay between ê1,500 and ê5,000 to traffickers in exchange for air passage from Port-au-Prince to Ecuador and Colombia from where they trek to Brazil via Peru and Bolivia.

Rousseff's upcoming trip to Haiti aims to boost cooperation with the impoverished nation, where Brazil leads the UN peacekeeping contingent.

Brazil has become the choice destination for Haitian immigrants lured by a massive infrastructure and construction boom linked to the country's hosting of the 2014 football World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

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