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Africans join the mass migration movement through Latin America

Refugee children from the Democratic Republic of Congo, at a camp in Uganda. (Credit: European Commission DG ECHO Follow/Flickr)

A rising number of African refugees and migrants are braving a perilous journey through Latin America, joining the throngs of Central Americans and other migrants on the same route in search of a better life in the U.S.

Latin America has become an increasingly popular route of entry to the U.S. for both African and Asian migrants over the past decade, but this year has seen an unprecedented number of such border crossings. About 7,882 Africans and Asians presented themselves at Mexican immigration in the first seven months of this year, the Guardian reported, marking an 86 percent increase from all of 2015.

Some Americans see the spike in African immigrants as a threat. A recent report by conservative news outlet Breitbart said the refugees have been getting a “special permit from Mexico that gives them a free pass to the U.S. border,” and that many of the unvetted migrants are from the terror hotbed of Somalia.”

Since Mexico lacks deportation agreements with many African nations and cannot hold migrants in facilities for more than 90 days, authorities have been providing many of the migrants with an exit permit that allows them to stay in the country for 3 weeks.

The migrants are not, however, from Somalia. Figures from Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM), indicate that more than half (53.7 percent) of the nearly 3,700 African migrants who passed through Mexican migration centers during the first six months of 2016 came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where thousands have fled civil unrest. The rest came from Ghana (10.7 percent) and Senegal (6.4 percent), among other nations.

These migrants and refugees typically arrive in Brazil to obtain fake passports, according to a Reuters investigation, before being smuggled to Panama and traversing through Central America to Mexico’s southern border. Many brave this journey by train, sea or even by foot, running the risk of robbery, sexual or violent assault along the way.

Once across the Mexican border, many of these African migrants have then been stuck in the town of Tapachula, waiting for their exit permits. At the end of August, the immigration station there registered 424 Africans in just two days.

Still, the number of African migrants making the journey is dwarfed in by the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing violence from the “northern triangle” countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The region remains one of the most dangerous in the world, with around 50,000 homicide victims in the last three years.

Migrant advocacy groups have criticized state authorities for not having a clear strategy to address what has become a crisis in Mexico. Mexican authorities recently announced a new plan to crack down on clandestine migration routes, but many doubt the government’s latest effort will be different from previous failed attempts. The plan could also end up benefiting human smugglers and other criminal groups, Insight Crime warned, as migrants are forced to turn to increasingly hazardous means of making the journey north.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at