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On parole, foreign ex-convicts battle to survive in Brazil

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Sao Paulo (AFP)

When South African drug mule Thandi was freed from a Rio de Janeiro jail in June, she had no money and nowhere to go -- until a Brazilian policeman agreed to help her, for a price.

"The police officer offered me... his phone and some money to catch a bus if I could perform a sexual favor for him," the 33-year-old, who did not want to use her real name, told AFP.

"He took me to a hotel and thereafter gave me 30 reais."

That's about seven dollars.

Thandi is one of hundreds of foreign ex-convicts who served time in Brazil -- mostly for drug trafficking -- and are now struggling to survive while serving out their parole.

With little support from authorities in Brazil or in their home countries, they battle to find housing and obtain identity documents.

Without official papers, they cannot find jobs or open bank accounts. Many speak little or no Portuguese.

"A lot of my sisters end up prostituting themselves and contract diseases and die and get buried here," said Thandi, a mother of two. She has to stay in Brazil until the end of 2020.

For Artur Gueiros, a professor in criminal law at Rio de Janeiro State University, the state bears responsibility for supporting foreigners like Thandi who are trying to bounce back after prison.

"It's a humanitarian issue that's not being respected," Gueiros, who is also a regional state prosecutor, told AFP in a telephone interview.

Many foreigners in Brazil, notably Filipinos, "also go through this sad situation. Abandoned, relegated, they are in a limbo," he said.

- 'Trying to survive' -

Brazil's jails held 2,161 foreign prisoners in 2017, according to the most recent official figure.

Most of them are from other Latin American countries. A quarter hail from Africa.

Foreign inmates were given the right to parole in 2014. But they have to remain in Brazil for the duration of their sentences before being expelled.

Their countries can apply for early deportation, but Gueiros said few do because the embassies have to pay the airfare.

Nduduzo Siba, 31, spent nearly four years in a Sao Paulo prison after cocaine was discovered in boxes of perfume she was carrying.

Siba, who is also from South Africa, says she was released in 2017 without even a last dinner.

"They said 'Go!' -- eight o'clock at night. I was like 'But I don't have money, I don't have anything, I don't have a phone, I don't know anyone, I don't know where to go!'" she said.

Many ex-inmates support each other through informal networks. But some fall back into drug trafficking, according to AFP interviews with former prisoners.

"There was no way I could survive," said 36-year-old Precious Ndubuisi, explaining her decision to return to the narcotics trade.

More than half of Brazil's foreign inmates are held in Sao Paulo state. They are jailed separately from Brazilian prisoners and offered workshops such as Portuguese lessons.

This support crumbles, however, once they are freed.

The Institute for Land, Work and Citizenship -- a human rights group known by the Portuguese acronym ITTC -- started a support program for female foreign ex-inmates two years ago.

Since then, it has helped more than 300 get their documents as well as find jobs and a place to stay.

ITTC president Sister Michael Mary Nolan said government departments dodge responsibility for the foreigners. Many end up living on the street.

"They're not doing anything," she told AFP. "There's a difference among the city and state governments over who should receive them."

Brazil's overcrowded and deadly prison system is already struggling to deal with its own nationals.

Foreigners make up only a fraction of the country's more than 726,000 inmates, the world's third-largest prison population after those of the United States and China, according to the online database World Prison Brief.

"The situation of prisoners, both Brazilian and foreign, has always been left aside," said Gueiros.

In a statement, the justice ministry said it works with state-level authorities "to strengthen and create measures to assist former inmates."

It has no figures on the number of foreigners on parole in Brazil.

But few foreign ex-convicts appear to receive help or are even aware it exists.

Thandi, who shares a one-bedroom house with two other former inmates and does hair braiding to get by, feels a growing sense of urgency to return to her two young sons in South Africa.

"Now my children are in an even bigger need than they were before," she said.

"I am still trying to survive here. When I eat, I wonder where the next meal will come from."

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