Trans forming boundaries in a contact zone: the experience of brazilian migrants in brussels

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Revista Ciencias Sociales 29 /Segundo Semestre 2012


Mieke Schrooten1

La migración internacional conduce a un aumento de la diversidad cultural y de la complejidad social a niveles locales. En la medida en que las personas cruzan las fronteras, se encuentran y conviven en diversos contextos étnicos o "zonas de contacto". Este artículo se centra en una "zona de contacto", es decir, la ciudad de Bruselas, capital de Bélgica y de Europa. Demostramos en el texto cómo esta “zona de contacto” ha sido influenciada por la llegada de inmigrantes brasileños. Por otra parte, se demuestra cómo estos inmigrantes brasileños construyen, visualizan y transforman los límites entre ellos mismos y los demás residentes del espacio local que habitan.

Palabras-clave: Bruselas, fronteras, migración brasileña, zonas de contacto, estudios de migración

International migration leads to an increased cultural diversity and societal complexity at the local level. As people cross borders, they meet and live together in ethnic diverse contexts or ‘contact zones’. This article focuses on such a ‘contact zone’, namely the city of Brussels, capital of Belgium and of Europe, and demonstrates how it has been influenced by the arrival of Brazilian migrants. Moreover, it is demonstrated how these Brazilian migrants construct, view and transform boundaries between themselves and other residents of the local space they inhabit.

Keywords: Brussels; Boundaries; Brazilian migration; Contact zones; Migration studies

Although migration has been an inherent part of human existence ever since our ancestors left Africa to populate the rest of the world (Wolf, 1997), mutual contacts have strongly intensified throughout the last decades. Rapid technological development, worldwide trade and a revolution in communication are increasingly interconnecting individuals and places, giving a new impetus to human mobility (Audebert and Doraï, 2010; Bauman, 2000; Schrooten, 2011b; Urry, 2007). These developments have profound implications for contemporary and future migration research. In this article, I argue that the introduction of a ‘border perspective’ in migration studies offers an excellent tool to research the everyday experiences of today’s migrants in the local spaces they inhabit. As Wilson and Donnan (2012:1) argue,

“[T]he proliferation of borders, and the many forces that have created and fostered their development, together have drawn scholars from all the humanities and social sciences to a mutual interest in what happens at, across and because of the borders to nations and states, and in extension to other geopolitical borders and boundaries, such as those of cities, regions and supranational polities”.

As demonstrated in the research of these scholars, borders function as a grand motif in everyday life. On the one hand, many recent events that revolve around changing borders, such as the creation of Mercosul, the expansion of the European Union, the rise of new global forces and new engagements between emerging countries have all made borders and borderlands new sites of processes of localization and globalization in the face of so many forces of change. On the other hand, the current ‘age of migration’ (Castles and Miller, 2009) also leads to an increased cultural diversity and societal complexity at the local level. As people cross international, state and other borders of polity, power, territory and sovereignty, populations mix and metaphorical borderlands of personal and group identities are negotiated (Alvarez, 1995; Anzaldúa, 1987; Barth, 1969; Donnan and Wilson, 1999; Horstmann and Wadley, 2006; Kearney, 1995; Lamont and Molnár, 2002). I argue that in the current globalised world these ethnic diverse contexts or ‘contact zones’ (Pratt, 1991) with a hybrid population are the norm, not only in the regions bisected by the boundary line between states, which traditionally have been at the focus of Border Studies (Wilson and Donnan, 2012), but also in the cosmopolitan cities, which are privileged places of migrant settlements and, as such, cultural crossroads par excellence.

In an earlier article (Schrooten, 2011a), I presented the results of a research conducted in such a contact zone, namely the city of Palmas, the capital of the Brazilian state Tocantins. Because the city was only founded in 1990, internal migration has heavily influenced the composition of the city’s population. Palmas is a city with a population that consists entirely of (mainly internal) migrants, and, as such, displays the characteristics of a contact zone. My research focused on the (re)creation of ethnic boundaries in this city, raising questions related to the possibility that the planned creation of a city such as Palmas would not reproduce the race relations that characterize the rest of the country, as the city was built during a period in which the Brazilian state recognized the existence of racism and started to implement anti-racism measures such as race based affirmative action (Bernardino, 2002; Brandão, 2005; Burdick, 1998; Caldwell, 2007; Htun, 2004; Schrooten, 2008). The research has demonstrated that the ethnic divisions existing in the rest of Brazil are also reproduced in Palmas. Although the government has consciously tried to promote social integration, the internal migration towards Palmas has not changed the existing patterns of ethnic divisions that are observable in the rest of the country. Rather than being purposefully erased, boundaries between ethnicities appear to be as strong as in the rest of the country.

In this article, I focus on another contact zone, namely the city of Brussels, the capital of Belgium and of Europe. I researched how Brazilian migrants residing in this city construct, negotiate and view boundaries between themselves and other residents of the local space they inhabit. I will demonstrate how the arrival of Brazilian migrants in Brussels has influenced these local spaces and how these migrants interact with other migrant communities and with the Belgian population. The research presented here is part of a PhD study on Brazilian migration to Belgium (2008-2013). Data collection and analysis of this research are typified by a qualitative approach, inherent to the anthropological method of ethnographic fieldwork. The study makes use of a multi-sited research design, with data-gathering taking place both online and offline (Schrooten, 2012). Data were collected through participant observation, analysis of web-based discussions and personal and e-mail interviews with Brazilians residing in Belgium (forty-one in total). The age of the interviewees ranged from 23 to 56 years. Twenty-nine of them were women and eleven men. Similar to findings of recent research amongst Brazilians that more than 57% of Brazilians in Belgium are coming from the Brazilian states of Goiás and Minas Gerais (Góis et al., 2009:38-41), most of the interviewees indicated these states as their region of origin. More than half of them had a high school degree, while some also had obtained a university diploma, and others had none or only primary education. Although most Brazilians in Belgium are undocumented (see later in this article), twenty-seven out of forty-one interviewees had a legal status in this country. The length of stay in Belgium varied between 6 months and 35 years. All were first-generation migrants.

The choice for Brussels as a research location was based on its role as capital of Europe, which gives the city a significant position within the trans-Atlantic relations. Secondly, Brussels displays the characteristics of a contact zone at the national level due to its socio-political position within the Belgian state, reinforced by the international position of the city and the presence of an ethnic heterogeneous population. Since the 1960s, migrant populations have increased to the point of outnumbering local populations in several municipalities (Corijn et al., 2009; Geets and Timmerman, 2010; Jacobs, 2006). Furthermore, because of the indigenous bilingual complexity that is specific to the region, Brussels is an area where symbolical boundaries are continuously renegotiated. Belgium is divided into a predominantly Dutch-speaking region in the northern part of the country (Flanders), a French-speaking region in the southern part (Wallonia), a German-speaking region in the south eastern part (within Wallonia), and the bilingual region of Brussels, although French is clearly the dominant language in the capital city. Fourthly, the choice for Brussels allows dissociating the trans-Atlantic migration of Brazilians from a former colonial tie. Finally, as the next section will show, the Brazilian community in Belgium is largely concentrated in Brussels (Dienst Vreemdelingenzaken, 2009; Góis et al., 2009).

Brazilian migration flows to Belgium

Historically, Brazil was a receiving country, being the migration destination of numerous migrants from all over the world. 20 and 21thst century migration from Asia and Europe, typified by a complex pattern of intercontinental migration flows, has added up to the ethnic diversity that was caused by the Portuguese settlement and the African slave trade (De Prins, Stols, and Verberckmoes, 2001; Durand, 2009; Lesser, 2005). The historical experience regarding migration thus makes Brazil a classic receiving country. However, starting in the fifties, a radical change took place. The flow of immigrants almost dried up and gradually the migration patterns reversed. The migratory flow of Brazilians, which started as a sporadic movement in the 1970s, intensified in the 1980s, a period in which Brazil was faced with economic stagnation, inflation and crisis, leading the country to experience for the first time a negative net migration flow (Pellegrino, 2004). By the end of the twentieth century, Brazil had turned into a country of emigration. The role of Brazil as an emigration country is thus relatively recent, beginning in the 1980s and increasing in the last decades. The number of international Brazilian migrants today is estimated by the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Ministério das Relações Exteriores, 2011) at approximately 3.1 million at a population total of 190.732.694 (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística, 2011). The continuing growth of Brazilian emigration is remarkable, given the current socio-economic status of the country, which is rapidly evolving to become a major hegemonic key development player. Since the early 2000s, the Brazilian economy has started to grow more rapidly, and today, Brazil is considered one of the fastest-growing major economies in the world. In December 2011, Brazil even supplanted the United Kingdom as the world’s sixth largest economy, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR). The socio-economic status of the country as a whole contrasts, however, sharply with the persisting intra-national inequalities, which make Brazil one of the most uneven countries in the world (United Nations Development Programme, 2009), a reality that is likely to influence the Brazilian migration pattern.

Although Brazilian migration was for a long time restricted to internal, intercontinental and certain extra continental destinations, starting in the 1980s, migration flows have also changed direction to Europe. Of all Brazilians abroad, some 912 000 are currently estimated to live in Europe (Ministério das Relações Exteriores, 2011). According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the growth of Latin American migrants in Europe can be related to, among others, historic ties between Europe and Latin America, to changed European and American migration policies and to pre-existent communities of Latin American migrants in European cities.

While the United Kingdom, Spain and Portugal are the European countries with the highest number of Brazilian migrants, Brazilians represent a large amount of the recent migration flows towards Belgium as well. Brazilian immigration into Belgium started in the 1960s with the arrival of a small number of political refugees who fled the military regime, as well as some artists, football players, and students. Due to political changes in Brazil, many of these migrants returned to Brazil from the 1980s on, where they contributed to the image of Belgium as an interesting migration destination. The economic crisis in Brazil around the 1990s encouraged a second Brazilian migration wave to Belgium. This wave intensified in the past decade, possibly as the result of the changed immigration policies of the United States after 9/11 and, subsequently, of the United Kingdom after the terrorist attacks in London in 2005 (Góis et al., 2009; Rosenfeld, Marcelle, and Rea, 2010:121-122).

Although Brazilian migration towards Belgium constitutes a relatively recent phenomenon, it has been referred to as an important trend by Brazilian policy makers (Pedroso, 2011), the Ministry of the Brussels-capital region (Ministerie van het Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest, 2008) and the IOM (Góis et al., 2009). Statistics of the Belgian government reveal that between 1995 and 2010 the number of Brazilians residing in Belgium has significantly augmented, from 1312 officially residing Brazilians in Belgium in 1995 to 5324 in January 2010 (Université Catholique de Louvain and Centrum voor Gelijkheid van Kansen en voor Racismebestrijding, 2011). To the relative growth of documented Brazilians in Belgium should be added the plausible growth of undocumented Brazilian migrants. Recent data of the IOM illustrate that the official numbers largely underestimate the real size of the Brazilian community, which is estimated between 10000 and 60000 migrants, a number that is expected to further increase in the future (Góis et al., 2009; Ministério das Relações Exteriores, 2011). The presence of a significant number of Brazilian migrants in Belgium is facilitated by bilateral agreements between Belgium and Brazil, allowing Brazilian nationals to enter Belgium without previously having to request a visa. Many among them remain within the Schengen associated countries after the allowed tourist stay of 90 days (Dienst Vreemdelingenzaken, 2009; Oosterbaan, 2010).

In recent years, we can also observe the opposite movement: a lot of Brazilians are returning to Brazil. Although it is impossible to present exact numbers on return migration, as a lot of Brazilians residing in Belgium are undocumented, Fedasil –the government body which oversees the voluntary return of– and the IOM –which organizes the return trip to one’s country of origin– have registered an increased demand by Brazilians residing in Belgium for the Assisted Voluntary Return programs they offer. With 770 voluntary returns in 2011 (Federaal Agentschap Opvang Asielzoekers, 2012a) and 232 voluntary returns in January to April 2012 (Federaal Agentschap Opvang Asielzoekers, 2012b), Brazilians form the main nationality of returnees in Belgium. Ongoing research on the economic crisis and return migration is showing how the image of Brazil as a country that is growing while the rest of the world is in crisis is of great importance in this decision to go back to Brazil. The lack of job opportunities in the countries of residence, combined with an improvement of the life conditions in Brazil is motivating many Brazilians to return (Fernandes, Faria, and da Silva, 2012).

Yet, the re-emigration of Brazilian nationals from Belgium goes accompanied by the arrival of new Brazilian migrants. Although for many of these newly arriving migrants, Belgium was their final migration destination, this is certainly not the case for all Brazilians residing in and arriving in the country. For some, Belgium was originally just a country of transit on their way to the United Kingdom. The increased border controls at the airports after the terrorist attacks of 2005 have forced many Brazilians to choose an alternative destination. Yet others have migrated to Belgium because they were living in a European country that was strongly affected by the current economic crisis. The post of Aparecida, a Brazilian woman living in Spain, on the forum of an online community created by Brazilian migrants in Belgium is illustrative for the migration motivation of these latter:

“People, I would like to hear your opinion, you who are living over there... This is what is going on; the only country I migrated to until now is Spain. I have been here for 8 years already, but I lost my job now, just like 5 million Spanish. Things are really bad over here now and I feel very discouraged. The thing is that I have the Spanish nationality and that I don’t know if it will really help me to find a job over there, because I speak neither English nor French, and even less Flemish. Only Portuguese and Spanish. Do you think it is an illusion to leave Spain and try to find something over there without even knowing the language? Please, I need you to be realistic in your answer. Lots of thanks to everyone who will respond”.

Many Brazilians residing in Southern European countries such as Portugal, Spain or Italy, reorient their migratory projects within the European continent, rather than returning to Brazil without having obtained their goals (Fernandes, Faria, and da Silva, 2012). Those Brazilians that decide to come to Belgium often explicitly mention the presence of family members, friends or acquaintances as an important incentive to choose Belgium as a migration destination. These networks facilitate the migration process as migrants get support in finding a residence and work via relatives, friends and acquaintances (Padilla, 2006; Pellegrino, 2004).

Within Belgium, Brazilian migrants are living strongly concentrated in the region of Brussels, with some smaller groups living in the Flemish and the Walloon region of the country. Many research participants averred that the Brazilian immigrants living outside Brussels are mostly students or migrants with a Belgian partner. Undocumented Brazilians and Brazilians without a Belgian partner would prefer to live in Brussels because of the already established Brazilian community in this city, and the larger employment opportunities. Moreover, the ethnic diversity of Brussels is also referred to as something positive by many Brazilians, for example by Silvana, a Brazilian artist who has been living in Brussels for 17 years:

“I feel great here in Brussels, because of this [the many different nationalities living in Brussels]. It feels like, like a very, very small Brazil. There are people from anywhere. I feel great here, and I think this is the reason. Because when I went, when we went ... We sometimes go to some small places in Flanders and I sometimes get scared of the people over there. […] When you arrive in a region that is really Flemish, in a place where people refuse to talk French, you have to be really careful. […] In these more distant cities they have this concern with ‘the invasion’. The invasion of immigration”. (Silvana, personal interview, 15 April 2010)

Especially the area around the South station of Brussels –the place where a lot of Brazilians first step foot on Belgian soil, when they arrive with the high-speed train from Paris– is of importance to these migrants. Not only do many Brazilians live in the nearby municipalities of Sint-Gillis, Anderlecht, Vorst and Elsene, it is also the area where a lot of Brazilian meeting places, such as churches, shops and bars can be found. The next section of this article looks deeper into the visibility of Brazilians in this contact zone and into their interactions with other inhabitants and visitors of this area. The focus will be on the processes of crossing, creation and transformation of boundaries that take place in this local space. I will demonstrate that the interactions between Brazilians and other migrants are ambivalent and that there are no, or at least very limited interactions between Brazilians and Belgians.

(Trans)forming boundaries in the contact zone

The neighborhoods of Elsene, Sint-Gillis, Anderlecht and Vorst, where most Brazilians live today, used to be known as the ‘Portuguese neighborhoods’ of Brussels (Regionaal Integratiecentrum Foyer Brussel vzw, 2011:18-31). The presence of the Spanish and Portuguese community, combined with the proximity of the train station and the housing price, has been an important incentive for Brazilians to choose the abovementioned neighborhoods as their place of residence. Hence, many Brazilians approached the more experienced Portuguese community for information and for work in the construction business or the cleaning industry (Rosenfeld, Marcelle, and Rea, 2010).

Today, the Brazilian influence in this contact zone within Brussels is very visible. During special occasions, such as carnival or the World Championship, it is impossible not to notice all the Brazilian flags hanging out of the windows in the neighborhood. There are also a lot of Brazilian churches in the area, ranging from Catholic to Evangelical or Pentecostal (Mareels, 2010). Moreover, several bars and restaurants have a Brazilian name or display references to Brazilian identity in their decoration, such as the Brazilian flag, or pictures of Brazilian football players or artists. Additionally, the Brazilian associations that are active in the neighborhood contribute to the visibility of the Brazilian presence in the city. The goals of the existing associations are very diverse, ranging from providing socio-juridical help to Brazilian migrants to organizing cultural events (Zavataro and Schrooten, 2012).

The Brazilian influence in the area around the South station is also noticeable in the ethnic bars and shops, which are mainly owned by Portuguese and Spanish entrepreneurs. The arrival of Brazilians has encouraged shop keepers to adapt their strategy to better fit the expectations of their new customers. Many entrepreneurs are able to address their Brazilian clients in Portuguese. Some shop owners are even competing over the Brazilian clients, trying to find products other shops don’t offer. Many have started importing Brazilian products from wholesalers in Portugal, the Netherlands and Germany and are advertising in the magazines that are spread around Brazilians living in Belgium, such as ‘ABClassificados’, ‘Brasil Etc.’ and ‘Brazuca’. Silvana has witnessed the changes within the neighborhood during the past 17 years:

“The Portuguese are fond of everything that is Brazilian. Because the Brazilian community is enormous. And they consume a lot more than any other community. So they sell Brazilian products. There are many shops, shops where you can buy clothes. And I remember when this business started where you could send money to Brazil. The first to organize this was a Spanish company. [...] Now you find Brazilian products everywhere. The night shops, the cybercafés, everybody is selling products from Brazil”. (Silvana, personal interview, 15 April 2010).

Some bars and restaurants also adapted their music, food and drinks, to the Brazilian public, especially to migrants coming from the states of Goiás and Minas Gerais (Moraes 2010). These bars also play an important role in providing social capital to recently arrived Brazilians –as business owners often give support to people struggling to find work or housing– and in crossing boundaries between Brazilians and other migrants living in the neighborhood, as some bars are frequented not only by Brazilians, but also by Portuguese, Spanish or Moroccan customers. During the World Cup in 2010, several of these customers of other nationalities joined the Brazilians to watch the matches of the Brazilian national football team, dressed up in the colors of the Brazilian flag.

However, this does not mean that there are no ethnic boundaries between Brazilians and other migrant groups in Brussels. In fact, the relationship between the different migrant communities is rather ambivalent. Similar to the findings of Feldman-Bianco (2001) and Machado (2009) in their work on Brazilians in Portugal, I also discovered antagonisms and colonial feelings behind the apparent friendly relationships between Brazilians and Portuguese in Brussels. As Wislane, a 45-year-old Brazilian woman who is married to a Portuguese man, describes: “Portuguese and Brazilians have a bigger history together. My whole life …, if you had told me that I would meet a Portuguese here, I would have said: ‘God, help me’”. (Wislane, personal interview, 27 March 2011).

Many Portuguese maintain a certain distance from Brazilians and many Brazilians are quite suspicious of the Portuguese. In their research on Brazilian construction workers in Brussels, Rosenfeld et al. (2010) found that a lot of Brazilian men working in construction had Portuguese bosses. The Brazilians often complained about exploitation and some of them perceived their situation as a reproduction of colonial boundaries. Also within the private atmosphere, the same feelings of exploitations are present, as illustrated by Dije, who migrated to Belgium in the beginning of 2010:

“There are a lot of people here, not only Brazilians but a lot of others as well, who marry ... or rather, who buy marriages. There is also a market out there. They generally marry Portuguese. But this is also complicated because you get married, you pay. In general, it costs some 5000 euro, they charge it for the wedding. So you pay. And then this person, you don’t know this person, you don’t know if it is a good person. There are some cases I’ve heard of, of people who ask for money all the time. And if you don’t give to them, they report you to the police or the town hall. So you lose your papers. Or if this person has debts, you also have to pay his debts. There are a lot of issues, it’s very complicated”. (Dije, personal interview, 22 April 2010).

Despite the fact that one cannot walk around in Brussels without bumping into Brazilians, until recently the presence of Brazilians remained largely hidden to the Belgian population. When I talked to other Belgians about my research on Brazilians, many were surprised about the high number of Brazilians living in the country and had never really noticed their presence in Brussels. However, during the last years, Brazil is getting more and more attention in the Belgian media. In 2010, a television program, called ‘Brazilië voor beginners’ (Brazil for beginners), in which ten famous Belgians travelled to Brazil to report on the Brazilian situation with respect to their area of expertise, was broadcast on the Flemish television. Moreover, in 2011, Europalia, an international arts festival held every two years to celebrate one invited country’s cultural heritage, turned its spotlights on Brazil. From October to February, the festival offered a program consisting of Brazilian music, fine arts, photography, cinema, theatre, dance and literature. The upcoming events of the World Youth Days (2013), the World Cup of Football (2014) and the Olympic Games (2016) that will all take place in Brazil, as well as the economic growth of Brazil are also regularly discussed in the Belgian media. Still, most Belgians continue to associate Brazil with carnival, football, exotic food, partying people, sensual women, samba, beaches and violence.

It is interesting to notice that those shop keepers and restaurant owners that want to attract Belgian customers often reify and reduce the ‘Brazilian identity’ in order to fit this exotic image Europeans have of Brazil (Machado, 2009) and giving their products an aura of a ‘Brazilian experience’. When looking deeper into this ‘Brazilian experience’, we see however that they promote a superficial consumption of Brazilian products rather than a real introduction to Brazilian culture. We can ask ourselves to what extent these shop keepers and their customers are really interested in boundary crossing or are only enjoying Brazil’s “five minutes of fame” on the international panorama.


In this article, I have argued that the introduction of a ‘border perspective’ provides a different way to think about the influence of migrants on a local space and the (trans)formation of symbolic boundaries that takes place. The international character of Brussels as the capital of Europe and its ethnic diversity due to the high proportion of foreign residents make Brussels exemplary for the fact that cosmopolitan cities are important cultural crossroads. In local spaces such as the area around the South station in Brussels, symbolic boundaries that crisscross the daily lives of its residents are constantly renegotiated and (trans)formed.

Conceiving of the symbolic boundaries that divide people into different categories at different times as something that is constructed, negotiated and viewed from ‘below’, in and through everyday practice, provides a way to present a more nuanced view on migrants’ experience of belonging or non-belonging (see also the analysis of Barth, 1969). As we have seen, the contact zone where many Brazilian migrants residing in Brussels live, is a site of real and intense ‘transformations’ and cross-cultural interaction. Yet, at the same time, existing boundaries are not completely erased, and new boundaries are also formed. Most Brazilians I talked to said for example that they had very few relationships with Belgians. With the exception of Brazilian students, who meet Belgians during their university classes, the network of most Brazilian migrants consisted almost exclusively of other Brazilians.

Also within the Brazilian immigrant scene, several fault lines are observable. Therefore, it would be too strong to state that these migrants have formed a Brazilian ‘community’ in Belgium. On the contrary, existing fault lines in Brazil, such as class and educational differences, are reproduced in Belgium. The confrontation with ‘boundaries’ is thus not an experience that is only limited to the relationship of migrants with other migrant communities or the autochthonous population of their new country of residence. Also within the own immigrant scene, social constructions about insiders and outsiders are present.


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Recibido: 15 de Junio de 2012

Aceptado: 02 de Septiembre de 2012

1 Mieke Schrooten is doctoral candidate in the Interculturalism, Migration and Minorities Research Centre (IMMRC) at the KU Leuven (University of Leuven), under the supervision of Prof.dr. Christiane Stallaert, and lecturer in the Department of Social Work at Hogeschool-Universiteit Brussel. E-mail:

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