Narratives of Migration Beyond Sentimental Stories? Impressions from Brazil

Christine Unrau

‘Not just anyone can enter our house’, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro declared as he withdrew Brazil from the Global Compact on Migration, thereby echoing a metaphorical reference to the nation as a house in need of protection against intruders which has been widely used by right-wing populists. In spite of this rhetoric of closure, Brazil still plays a central role in the reception of refugees in the Americas, especially since the deterioration of the Venezuelan crisis. Besides Venezuelans, Brazil also hosts refugees and forced migrants from Colombia, Haiti, Angola, Syria, Lebanon, the Congo and many other countries.

In this context, civil society organizations play an important role, as do many universities which contribute to the academic consortium dedicated to Sergio Vieira de Mello, for example through access to higher education, facilitated recognition of diplomas, Portuguese language courses and legal clinics. Another important pillar of refugee integration is constituted by the advocacy work and support of NGOs.

As I could observe during a research stay at the Federal University of ABC in the São Paulo metropolitan area, some protagonists have developed an elaborate concept of raising awareness for refugees’ situation. One example is the NGO ADUS, founded in 2010 and located at the historical city centre of São Paulo. ADUS, in Latin, means ‘access’ or ‘way’ and that is exactly the organization’s goal: Pave refugees’ and forced migrants’ way into a new life in Brazil. They combine advocacy work and direct support in an interesting way: While their main focus is on providing support for refugees’ integration into the job market, they also organize language classes in Spanish or French taught by refugees, as well as intercultural workshops.

At the same time, they emphasize the necessity to reach as many Brazilians as possible and counter prejudice against refugees and forced migrants. As ADUS director Marcelo Haydu pointed out during my visit, it is essential that this exercise of changing people’s minds does not recur to strategies of victimization. Apart from the lack of agency for migrants that victimization entails, it would also be prompted with the question ‘What about Brazilians?’, given that there are regions in the country where hunger is still a daily reality. The focus, according to Marcelo, should be on retrieving Brazil’s own history as a destination of immigration over the centuries, as well as emphasizing that refugees are simply persons. What happened to them could happen to anyone. Interestingly, the ADUS director also pointed out that for him, the task of presenting the personhood of refugees while emphasizing their agency and voice, requires a lot of resources and should therefore be mainly undertaken by governments. In that regard he pointed to a social media campaign led by the Dilma Roussef government in 2016/2017, at the initiative of CONARE (Comitê Nacional para os Refugiados), an interministerial commission dedicated to refugees. While the texts and images were well done, they never went beyond the digital sphere, a fact that attests to the ‘half-heartedness’ and lack of commitment to the issue of refugees also on the part of the former government.

So in 2017, ADUS, in cooperation with other partners, promoted the project Refugiados. Um lar chamado São Paulo  (Refugees. A home called São Paulo). It was held in the Shopping Centre ‘3’, on Paulista Avenue, in the city centre of São Paulo between March and May 2017 and featured various events such as musical concerts and shows. The core of the project, however, was constituted by an exposition of large format black and white photographs of refugees who had arrived in São Paulo over the previous years and had been in contact with ADUS. The frontal portraits, which were shot by photographer Felipe Grespan, had their own aesthetics, reminiscent of those that were part of conceptual artist Jochen Gerz’s exposition The Gift. Gerz’s project featured black and white portraits of ordinary citizens, including homeless people, of San Francisco (US), Le Fresnoy (France) and Dortmund (Germany). In both artistic projects, the images offered to the viewer’s gaze the close-ups of individuals with their facial expression, which articulated moods or feelings, but – with the exception of some details of their clothing – no further contextual elements. So, contrary to familiar images which show refugees either during the hardship of their journeys or in dismal conditions after their arrival, the São Paulo exposition abstracted from these contexts. While some facts and figures on refuge and asylum in Brazil were provided, the focus lay on the individuals.

This can also be read as a shift from refugees’ past to their present moment as one of openness and opportunity. It also resonates with statements by refugees who say they are ‘tired’ of telling the stories of their flight, because it can be re-traumatizing and leave them ‘tokenized and disempowered’. By contrast, the exhibition, as already expressed in its title, focused on what the refugees had in common in the present, namely that they had found ‘um lar’ – a home – in São Paulo.

There is a parallel between the title and aesthetics of the exposition and a music video for the song New Home by the reggae/balkan/folk band Bukahara: While the song tells the story of leaving one’s home and finding a new one, the video clip portraits persons from various places, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, South Korea, Syria, Azerbaijan and Brazil, who sing along in front of dark green canvasses. Only in the last section of the video, the camera zooms out and reveals a bigger picture of where and how they found a new home, some in a nicely furnished apartment, some in their own little corner stores, some in more precarious and humble surroundings. Some, importantly, have not (yet) found a home at all and are stuck in refugee shelters. 

This approach constitutes an alternative to pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty’s concept of ‘sentimental education’ (Rorty 1993: 122), according to which sympathy with distant others can only be aroused through ‘sad sentimental stories’ (ibid: 118). As attested to by the iconic images of Alan Kurdi and Valeria Ramirez, such visual narratives can in fact be very powerful, but at the same time raise questions of hypocrisy, political instrumentalization and voyeurism, especially when black and brown bodies are exposed in unceremonious ways. 

As Bukahara and ADUS show, stories that move need not necessarily be sad and images need not be shocking. Of course, the (potential) happy end stories can also be criticized for various reasons: They may involve an aestheticization of suffering, spare the viewer the confrontation with the harsh reality which causes flight and even increase the ‘salutary power’ of what Didier Fassin (2012: 252) called ‘humanitarian reason’. ‘Salutary power’, in this context, refers to a certain relief which may follow from an exclusive focus on individuals which obscures the view for the structural and systemic injustices that cause suffering. If seen through this lens, the context of the exposition, inside a shopping mall, could be seen as further evidence for the commercialized or ‘feel-good’ form of consciousness for refugees’ plight, which is adopted as a life-style rather than a conviction (cf. also Heins/Unrau 2018). While all this cannot be ruled out in principle, the exposition by ADUS should not be mechanically charged with nurturing hypocrisy. After all, it puts refugees – and not self-stylized helpers – at its center. Also, it is only one aspect of the support and advocacy work that ADUS is doing. Finally, and more generally, fears of being charged with hypocrisy should not prevent anyone from speaking out – and acting – on behalf of others: Hypocrisy, as Judith Shklar (1984: 57) reminds us, is not the worst of vices. Cruelty is, such as the one involved in closing one’s doors to those who have a need and a right to be let in.



Fassin, Didier (2012). Humanitarian Reason. A Moral History of the Present, Berkeley (CA): University of California Press.

Heins, Volker and Unrau, Christine (2018). ‘Refugees welcome: Arrival gifts, reciprocity and the integration of forced migrants,’ Journal of International Political Theory, 14(2) 223–239.

Rorty, Richard (1993). ‘Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality,’ in Steven Shute and Susan Hurley (eds.), On Human Rights. The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1993, New York (NY): Basic Books, 111–134.

Shklar, Judith (1984). Ordinary Vices, Cambridge (MA) & London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.


Communications Team


Please contact us with any questions. If you wish to contribute an opinion piece, please write an email
to We're looking forward to hearing from you.