An increasing number of African migrants moving through Latin America to seek asylum in the United States demands greater attention and humanitarian responses, a new report has urged, as these asylum seekers face unique challenges along their routes.
The US, Latin American countries and international groups must better manage the flow of a group of people facing more danger, abuse and racism on an already perilous journey, the US-based Migration Policy Institute (MPI) said in its report, titled “African Migration through the Americas”.
While African asylum seekers make up a relatively small share of overall flows across the Americas, representing less than one-sixth of all international migration, experts say their ranks are likely to keep growing.
“Because it is smaller than other migration flows it often gets forgotten about,” Jessica Bolter, one of the authors of the MPI report, told Al Jazeera about African migrants moving through Latin America on the way to the US.
“But there are unique challenges and needs that these migrants face and there are also unique challenges for governments in managing this migration.”
Thursday’s report comes after desperate scenes of Haitians fleeing destitute conditions and assuming great risks through a jungle passage called the Darien Gap in hopes of reaching the US border dominated international headlines in recent weeks. Thousands of Haitians have also been expelled from the US after crossing into the country from Mexico and sheltering under a bridge in Texas.
These events reflect some of what has been occurring since 2013, as more people from the Caribbean, the African continent and Asia trek through as many as nine South and Central American countries to get to the US. Some people are fleeing extreme violence, crippling poverty or the forces of climate change. Others are seeking out more opportunities.
African migrants typically fly into Ecuador, which allows visa-free travel for most nationalities, or Brazil, the Latin American country with the most embassies or consulates in African countries. Their journeys can take months, or even years, as they stop and try to plant roots along the way.
“There’s going to have to be more of an effort to provide protection, and legal status as well as train officials in interacting with vulnerable populations and populations that right now are facing significant racism as they move through the region,” said Bolter.
African migration through Latin America is still relatively small in scope, especially when compared with the massive exodus of Venezuelans or Central Americans.
But the report’s authors note that the increasing popularity of the Americas route coincides with a decline in numbers of African migrants intercepted en route to Europe. As European authorities have cracked down on migrants’ passage via the Mediterranean Sea, information and personal success stories about the journey to the US have spread.
In the 2019 fiscal year, some 5,000 people from 35 African countries were intercepted by US authorities trying to cross the border “irregularly”, the report noted, twice as many as in 2018. They mostly hailed from Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ghana, and Somalia. By comparison, 270,000 Guatemalan migrants were intercepted that same year.
For its part, Mexico apprehended 6,641 migrants from African countries in the 2019 fiscal year, an increase of about 1,000 percent compared with 2014.
Translation, anti-racism training
Overall migration stalled in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions, which trapped people who were already en route, but the report’s authors note that movement has resumed in 2021.
Right now, the response in transit countries in Latin America mainly consists of facilitating migrants’ continued movement north, as most are not informed of their right to seek asylum in the countries they are passing through.
The MPI has urged the US to establish refugee processing centres in Panama or Costa Rica to be able to adjudicate claims and save people from having to carry on the dangerous journey.
The group said Washington should also fund programmes that provide ways for people to turn around and go back to their home countries, should they decide the journey is too dangerous to continue.
“Merely increasing enforcement while continuing to facilitate transit – without making pathways to legal status available for those interested – would only further increase unstainable pressure on the U.S.-Mexico border and place African migrants in more danger during their transit,” the report stated.
International organisations should fund translators to help with language access and anti-racism training, the MPI also said, as African migrants have been subjected to worse detention conditions in Mexico than Central American migrants.
“We’ve heard lots of reports of that,” said Bolter. “There are also lots of reports of them being extorted by officials, or targeted by criminal groups who know that officials are not going to prosecute them for committing crimes against African migrants, or Black migrants.”
‘Migrating is a right’
Wilner Metelus, president of the Citizen Committee in Defense of Naturalized and Afro-Mexicans, said an international commission is necessary to oversee what is happening at the southern Mexican border, which he described as a living “hell” for African and Haitian migrants.
“The Mexican government is not respecting international treaties. It’s shameful what is happening with African migrants in the southern border,” Metelus told Al Jazeera.
Mexico has been complying with pressure from the US government to keep migrants from making it to the US border. That has translated into what Human Rights Watch (HRW) called a “containment” policy on the part of the Mexican authorities aimed at keeping migrants in the south of the country, primarily in the city of Tapachula, where they have no work, housing, or food. Many are forced to sleep on the street. While they technically can move around the state of Chiapas, HRW said immigration checkpoints have trapped them in Tapachula.
“Migrating is a right,” Metelus said. “They don’t represent a threat. They are not delinquents. They left their countries because of a lack of opportunities and violence.”