African Immigrants Drift Toward Latin America

Luis Andres Henao, Reuters, November 15, 2009

Stowed away on cargo ships and unsure where their dangerous journeys will take them, increasing numbers of African immigrants are arriving in Latin America as European countries tighten border controls.

Some head to Mexico and Guatemala as a stepping stone to the United States, others land in the ports of Argentina and Brazil. Though many arrive in Latin America by chance, once in the region they find governments that are more welcoming than in Europe.

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In Brazil, Africans are now the largest refugee group, representing 65 percent of all asylum seekers, according to the Brazil’s national committee for refugees.

There are now more than 3,000 African immigrants living in Argentina, up from just a few dozen eight years ago. The number of asylum seekers each year has risen abruptly, to about 1,000 a year, and a third of them are African.

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This is still low compared to the tens of thousands of immigrants who make the journey to Europe each year, but Africans are expected to come to Latin America in increasing numbers.

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For many, their journey starts by dodging port controls in Africa and then surviving on water and biscuits for weeks.

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VISAS AND CLASSES

Millions of Europeans arrived in South America aboard ships in the 19th century escaping poverty and war, while Africans arrived on slave ships to work on Brazil’s vast sugar cane plantations.

Nowadays, Africans might arrive on cargo ships or commercial planes and then seek asylum or overstay tourist visas. In Argentina, they can obtain temporary work visas shortly after arriving and renew them every three months.

“The migratory policies of the country are very favorable,” said Manzanares. “It’s a reflection of history. What happened with European immigrants 100 years ago is now happening with African immigrants.”

Africans in Argentina can also obtain free health services and some take Spanish lessons taught by Catholic charities.

Many eventually settle here, marry, or become Argentine citizens. Some Africans who have arrived legally have managed to work as musicians and a few others play professional soccer for local clubs. The majority earn a living selling jewelry on the streets of Buenos Aires.

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Now increasing numbers of immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo are escaping violence and civil war back home and seeking asylum in Brazil, which can be an easy country for African immigrants to adapt to because it has the largest black population outside of Africa.

“The adaptation process is really good in Brazil,” said Carolina Montenegro of UNHCR in Brazil. “For Africans it tends to be easier because of this cultural heritage.”

More and more immigrants from Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia are also making their way to Mexico and Central America via cargo ships, hoping to eventually reach the United States over land.

The number of Africans passing through the detention center in Tapachula, a city near Mexico’s southern border, was more than 600 last year, three times as many as in 2007.

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