As European countries tighten up border controls, more and more Africans fleeing war and poverty in their homelands are landing at ports in Latin America. While some arrive in Mexico as a stepping stone to reach the United States, others find themselves in Brazil and Argentina after sneaking aboard cargo ships in African ports they mistakenly thought were bound for Europe.
More than 3,000 African immigrants now live in Argentina, up from just a few dozen eight years ago, and almost a third of the nation’s asylum seekers are from Africa.
“You never used to see an African man in the streets of Buenos Aires. It’s a search for new destinations,” said Carolina Podesta from the Argentine office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Migrants have also been forced to look for alternatives because of tougher immigration policies in European countries and a crackdown on border security since 9/11, Podesta said.
“We’re seeing a tendency that’s on the rise and that will continue growing,” she said.
Immigrants, mainly from Senegal, Egypt, Nigeria and Ghana, usually come as stowaways or obtain a Brazilian visa and reach Argentina crossing the border by land.
In Brazil, Africans are now the largest refugee group, making up 65 percent of all asylum seekers, according to the country’s national committee for refugees.
In the 1990s, Brazil received a large number of Angolans fleeing from the civil war. Now Congolese immigrants are escaping violence back home and seeking asylum in Brazil, which has the largest black population outside Africa.
“The adaptation process is really good,” said Carolina Montenegro of UNHCR Brazil. “For Africans it tends to be easier because of this cultural heritage.”
But adapting to a new life in Argentina can be hard in a country where in the last census more than 97 percent of the population describe themselves as white.
Abdou Secka, 30, a refugee from the Gambia, works washing cars in the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
During his first year he has learned Spanish and met an Argentine girlfriend, but he said he often faces discrimination.
“Argentina is a free country,” Secka said. But, “I don’t like how people stare at me in the street or point at me and say: ‘Look there goes a black man.’ ”
Other immigrants said they had also been discriminated against because of their skin color. But they said it was minor compared to the xenophobia African migrants face in Europe.
Most Argentines descend from Italian migrants. But while Italy enacted legislation that made it a felony to be an illegal immigrant or to help one, in Argentina they can get a temporary work permit while they legalize their immigration status.
They also get free healthcare and many take Spanish lessons taught by Catholic Church charities.