Interview: How the city of São Paulo leads the way in the inclusion of refugee and migrants

Cities, municipalities & local authorities

Interview: How the city of São Paulo leads the way in the inclusion of refugee and migrants

05 February 2020

Interview with Andrea Zamur

Andrea Zamur lives in São Paulo, Brazil, where she works for the Municipal Secretariat for Human Rights and Citizenship as a Coordinator of ‘Policies for Immigrants and the Promotion of Decent Work’.

Cities need to hold dedicated discussions for more inclusion of migrants and refugees in the community – Andrea Zamur 


Tell us about the work your team is doing for refugees and those who are forced to flee.

Andrea Zamur: Our team in the municipality of São Paulo is responsible for measures related to the protection and well-being of migrants and refugees who live in our city. Our most important work is to raise awareness about migration and the fact that people, naturally, are on the move. We advocate for this approach to be part of the daily routine of all our colleagues in the public administration. Second, we work to ensure that refugees and immigrants are well served and benefit from policies that already exist for Brazilians – in other words, we aim at ensuring that refugees and immigrants are adequately included in programmes that our own citizens benefit from. Another part of our work is to create policies that cater to the specific needs of refugees and immigrants, with a particular focus on those that are most vulnerable – women, men and children who have fled their homes, if necessary – only if necessary, as we don’t want to create parallel systems. We simply want to make sure that they can benefit from the same services that nationals enjoy.

Why it is so important that municipalities and cities get involved in finding solutions for refugees and migrants? 

A.Z.: Cities are where people live their normal lives, it is where they meet their most basic needs, where they work, where they study, and where they connect with other people. In the context of the CRRF and the Global Compact on Refugees, cities have a critical role to play. Cities often are the first responders to refugee situations, they offer entry points for greater inclusion of refugees and migrants. We in cities and municipalities are the people on the ground who have direct contact with the people who are affected – this includes the host population. It is easier for us to engage with and listen to beneficiaries and our communities. We understand their needs better.

Can you share an example of services that are enjoyed by refugees and migrants in São Paulo?

A.Z.: Education, for instance, is at the heart of our efforts. My team’s work is grounded in a 2016 municipal policy for immigrants. The law sets out the obligations of local government, including for the Secretariats of Health, Education, and Social Assistance, to improve the way we support immigrants in our city. We ensure that public services accept the documentation of refugees and migrants so that they access different services – one of the most critical being education. Our municipal law states that even if a child doesn’t have a birth certificate – or another document that is normally accepted by the school for enrolment – the child must be enrolled, because they are a refugee. In some cases, children don’t have documents at all, but we ensure they can still enrol. My team raises awareness of government departments – for example we sensitise the Education Secretariat about the law and its implications, we answer questions if these government entities are not aware of the law. Ultimately, we want to ensure that refugees and migrants are truly included in municipal schools. We have made great progress on this – we are proud to say that today, there are no refugee children out of school, and civil servants are being trained and sensitized on this.

What project are you most proud of?

A.Z.: One of the most interesting projects we are currently working on is called “Open Doors” – Portuguese language classes for immigrants. Many cities propose language classes for immigrants, but our programme is unique in that it was conceived alongside our Municipal Secretariat for Education, so that to use their structure  in the public schools and expertise in education for our classes. The teachers who teach the language classes are not volunteers, they are employees whose salary is covered with public money. We have also partnered with the University of São Paulo to create specific learning material: teachers specialised in languages have helped us design the materials and trained the teachers to teach Portuguese to non-nationals – which is very different from teaching Portuguese to Brazilians. Prior to the project, there were already many language courses scattered around the city, but most of them were located in the central area of São Paulo, where life is more expensive. This meant that many refugees and migrants could not afford to come to the classes.  Today, because we are using the public networks of schools, we are able to set up classes in four out of five regions of the city. Last year, we started with 9 schools and 350 students. This semester, over 500 students are enrolled in 13 schools, and we plan to keep increasing. Every refugee or migrant, however old they are, can join a language class, regardless of the documentation they have.

Sao Paolo is progressive in policies relating to refugees and migrants. Is this the city’s initiative, coming from the people or does it comes from a broader national policy?

A.Z.: The policies of the city of São Paulo stand out for several reasons. This huge and diverse city was built by migrants; people from many different nationalities live here, and our heritage is made of many different nationalities. Migration is weaved into the fabric of our city and society. We also have a very active civil society: Brazilians, migrants and refugees are very engaged. We are the economic centre of Brazil, so it is very dynamic. Last but not least, our 2016 municipal immigration policy is a strong piece of legislation that is at the heart of our work. It enables us to do so much for refugees and migrants.

We need to consult the voices on the ground - Andrea Zamur 


What is your message to other cities around the world?

A.Z.: “We should unite" (laughs). I have three messages: One, it is very important to share our experiences. Many minds are better than one, so cities need to create the space to discuss the challenges that we are facing, propose solutions and come up with innovative ideas. Secondly, we should take stock of what is happening together, learning from the positive and the negative experiences so that we can adjust. Cities need to hold dedicated discussions for more inclusion of migrants and refugees in the community. Last but not least, we need to consult the voices on the ground. Cities should listen to the people – the local community, including refugees and migrants of course, and those who benefit from progressive policies. They have the ideas: if we simply listen to them, they will give us the answers.