Brazil: Homeless become victims of targeted 'cleaning' operations

© Fabrizia Granatieri Click image for larger size According to the accounts of other MSF beneficiaries, these actions are commonplace in the streets of Rio. However, it was the first time the MSF team witnessed one of these cleaning operations first-hand.
In Rio de Janeiro, the municipal police, working with the garbage collection services, move through the city identifying areas where homeless gather and then move in, disperse the homeless - who often run away at first sight of the authorities - and have the garbage services collect all the bags and sacks they find, declaring everything 'garbage'. Through this practice, they effectively strip the homeless and street children of their few belongings, including official documents, medical prescriptions, medicines and money. Antonio Carlos was hit by a car seven months ago and had to undergo surgery to repair a severely damaged leg. He lives in the streets of Rio and is one of the hundreds who benefit from an MSF project which provides health care and psycho-social support to homeless in Rio. On the morning of Wednesday, January 14, while still recovering from the accident, Antonio Carlos was one of the many homeless who lost all their belongings during a 'cleaning' operation. "They took everything I had," said Antonio. "In the bag there were my clothes, the medical prescription, medicines and an X-ray. They also took my wallet with my documents and all my money. I don't know what I will do now. I was robbed! This is pure theft!" According to the accounts of other MSF beneficiaries, these actions are commonplace in the streets of Rio. However, it was the first time the MSF team witnessed one of these cleaning operations first-hand. "Everybody started to run away as a group of men - municipal force and garbage collectors - approached and tried to collect as many belongings as they could," said Lourdilena dos Santos, an MSF psychologist, who was talking to a patient as the men arrived. "It looked like a medieval scene, in the centre of Rio de Janeiro, in the middle of the day." MSF has been working with street population in Rio since 2000, aiming to improve their conditions, access to health and social public services, as well as to promote their social inclusion. Besides the direct care offered to this group, provided by a multidisciplinary team that works on the streets everyday, MSF also tries to foster the creation of a public policy that will target this group. © Fabrizia Granatieri Click image for larger size "...we have been trying hard to work with the authorities in order to create an integrated and sustainable policy to address the issue of street people, and there has recently been some willingness to cooperate," said Susana de Deus, MSF Head of Mission in Rio de Janeiro
Although the situation of homeless in Rio de Janeiro is acknowledged as an issue that needs to be addressed, the local government still lacks a consistent and integrated policy to respond to their needs. "For all this time, we have been trying hard to work with the authorities in order to create an integrated and sustainable policy to address the issue of street people, and there has recently been some willingness to cooperate," explained Susana de Deus, MSF Head of Mission in Rio de Janeiro. "However, at the same time, due to a complete lack of integration between different departments within the same government, these cleaning operations continue to happen. Depriving these people of the few things they possess should be condemned as a strong violation of their rights." Over the past years, in the lead-up to events, such as Carnival, that attract hundreds of thousands of tourists and immense international attention, the cleaning operations have intensified. "In the absence of a sustainable solution for the situation of the homeless, these actions are a way of hiding Rio's problems away from tourists and preserving the city's image," said de Deus. "Besides collecting their belongings, which are considered to be garbage, some actions force these people out of the streets into precarious and overcrowded shelters." Following the recent cleaning operations, MSF has sent a letter to the local authorities as well as to the government human rights commissions, asking that they stop these operations. In the letters, MSF "condemns violent acts perpetrated by public institutions against the population, and appeals to the Mayor and the Governor of Rio de Janeiro to stop these brutal actions".