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Only way out?

June 20, 2011

With the European Union sealing off its external borders, more and more refugees from African countries seek shelter in other parts of the world. In Latin America, figures have doubled.

Ivorian families getting off a truck in Liberia
Violence erupted again in Ivory Coast this year, forcing Ivorians to leave their homesImage: AP

It's rush hour on Avenida Rivadavia in the buzzing, pulsating quarter of Once in Buenos Aires. On the pavement, street vendors have put up small stands every two meters: Earrings, watches and sunglasses are spread out on big shawls on the floor, they pile up in suitcases, or dangle from umbrellas.

"It's cold," says one of the vendors, rubbing his hands. Koaku Bu Date Rodrigue was born in Ivory Coast. The 25-year-old came to Argentina two years ago.

"My country is in a civil war. I was forced to fight in a rebels' group," says Koaku. "One morning I managed to escape. I made my way to San Pedro port and hid in the container room of a ship." Koaku doesn't remember just how long he had to hide for. When the ship stopped moving he was in Argentina.

Twice as many refugees

Every year, hundreds of thousands of Africans leave their home countries. Many want to go to Europe. But the EU has been sealing off its external frontiers.

"I had heard of Europe, but I didn't know how to get there. You need money and you need to know people," says Koaku.

Koaku Bu Date Rodrique from Ivory Coast on his bed
Koaku Bu Date Rodrique from Ivory Coast now earns his living as a street vendorImage: DW

Like Koaku, many Africans are therefore now considering other destinations, such as Latin America. In Argentina, the number of African migrants and refugees has more than doubled since 2005.

The national refugee commission CO NA RE has registered more than 3,000 over the past five years. Illegal immigrants from Africa today make up the second largest group of asylum seekers in Argentina. Most of them come from Senegal or Ivory Coast. Neighbouring Brazil reports similar developments.

"We have noticed a considerable rise in illegal immigration from Africa, in particular since 2005, when the European border protection agency Frontex took up its job," says Marcos Filardi. He's in charge of refugee issues with Argentina's Defensoría General de la Nación, a public institute which makes sure that human rights are observed.

Final destination: Latin America

Marcos Filardi and a refugee
Marcos Filardi (l.) looks after African refugees in ArgentinaImage: DW

It's a long and risky journey over the Atlantic for people like Koaku, which can even be life-threatening. Hidden away as stowaways on container ships they have to wait for days on end - the journey to Latin America can take as long as three weeks. And then, there's the constant fear of being uncovered and simply thrown overboard.

Once they've reached Argentina, however, life is a little easier for them than for those who arrive in Europe. That's because Argentina's migration and refugee policies are modern and progressive, says Filardi.

"Within a few weeks, asylum seekers here receive a work permit, free health care, language classes and access to education."

That sounds great in theory - but the rising number of African refugees every year hasn't gone unnoticed with the Argentinian government. Their largest concern are illegal immigrants from Senegal, who make up the largest group of immigrants from Africa so far. Senegalese refugees don't come to Latin America by container ship - they fly. It's easy for them to get to Brazil: The embassy in Dakar stamps a visa into their passports - and people smugglers help them cross the border to Argentina from Brazil.

"Argentina addressed this issue with Brazil in 2009 and asked that the embassy in Dakar improves visa issuance procedures. They had noticed that it was becoming an easy route for people who wanted to go to Argentina," explains Filardi.

No end in sight

Deborah Munarriz and her students
Deborah Munarriz and her law students offer legal advice to refugees for freeImage: DW

Figures may be small in comparison to Europe's - but the constant influx of African immigrants will not likely cease any time soon, says Deborah Munarriz. She's a professor for Refugee Law. Together with a group of students from the University of Buenos Aires she looks after African immigrants whose asylum application has been rejected by the Argentinian authorities.

"Argentinia doesn't have a solution for those people - the state turns a blind eye on them." Argentinians themselves are becoming more and more sceptical, too - a curious development for a country like Argentina, which considers itself a country of immigration.

"Argentina has always seen itself as a country which was founded by the Europeans," says Filardi. "This is a myth, but for ideological reasons this myth has been held up. There is quite a bit of racism here."

But the immigrants have also had their share of influence on the culture of their new home already. The Argentinian government launched the 'Year of African descent' to revive this long-neglected part of Argentinian history. 200 years ago, the Argentinian war of independence was won with the help of soldiers of African descent. 'Revolution' is a film about the crusade of revolutionary San Martín. Kuako from Ivory Coast has taken on the role of an extra in the film.

Author: Anne Herrberg (nh)

Editor: Sarah Steffen