Latin America Sees Increase In African Refugees

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees reports an increase in asylum seekers from several African countries to South America. Among countries seeing a spike in asylum seekers from Africa are Brazil and Argentina. Guest host Jennifer Ludden discusses the trend with journalist Anil Mundra, who has reported on African immigration to Argentina. Mundra is joined by Professor Clarence Lusane, of American University. Lusane works closely with African rights organizations in Brazil.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

As Europe cracks down on illegal migration, more and more Africans are heading to Latin America. Brazil and Argentina are the most popular destinations. Both have seen a spike in asylum seekers from Africa, and while these governments may be more open to immigration, the process of integrating these newcomers is not always smooth.

We're joined now by Anil Mundra. Until recently, he was based in Argentina for Global Post. Also with us is Professor Clarence Lusane of American University School of International Service. He works with African rights groups in Brazil. And welcome to both of you.

Mr. ANIL MUNDRA (Journalist): Thanks.

Professor CLARENCE LUSANE (American University School of International Service): It's great to be here.

LUDDEN: Professor Lusane, let me start with you. Why are Africans widening up in Brazil?

Professor CLARENCE LUSANE (American University School of International Service): Well, Brazil is attractive for a number of reasons. One is that it has a large black population. But it's also attractive because it actually has extremely progressive refugee policies and those are known increasingly around the world among refugees. And that attraction and the word of mouth that has spread around the receptivity of people coming to Brazil has meant that there's been a large increase of people of African descent, both from the continent of Africa but also from the Caribbean, for example.

LUDDEN: Anil Mundra, you've done stories on African newcomers to Argentina. Why did they tell you they went there?

Mr. MUNDRA: You know, everyone said that they came because the economy was good. Now that's kind of ironic because the Argentine economy is not very good. It had a terrible - it has a crisis every decade basically. The last one was in 2001 and still, you know, some questionable policies and generally not in great shape, lately. But there seems to be, maybe, a misconception.

Most of them didn't have any idea what they were getting into. Most of the people coming to Argentina these days are Senegalese and they would be what the UN would economic migrants, not - they wouldn't be considered refugees and they're coming to make money, but it seems like it was a worth of mouth phenomenon again, and someone said, you know, Argentina is a good place to go and it just kind of ballooned from there.

LUDDEN: Anil, you actually spoke with a Senegalese man who felt discriminated against. He had a finance degree, he spoke four languages, actually became a citizen in Argentina, but he wasn't really kind of living the Argentina dream as it might be.

Mr. MUNDRA: Yeah. He was actually Congolese. There's very few Congolese there now, and that's partly I think - he tells me that's partly because he's told everybody not to come because it's not a good place for people like him. He is very outspoken about the discrimination in Argentine society and in the government.

Now it's a mixed thing. Everyone, particularly, you know, people that are street vendors and so they're interacting with citizens and police on the street everyday - everyone has their stories of being called racial slurs -some of them being physically assaulted, especially by police - but they usually go on to qualify that and say well, that's the exception and basically we're earning more money here than we could back at home and we're basically happy.

LUDDEN: So Professor Clarence Lusane, what about those Africans who land in Brazil? What are the policies there and what happens to them if they're arriving without documentation?

Professor LUSANE: Well, this goes back to 2004. There was an agreement signed called the Mexico Plan of Action to strengthen international protection of refugees. And it was signed by 20 countries, including Brazil, Argentina, the U.S., Canada - 16 other countries.

And what it did was to create a broad framework under which rights were designated that were to be available for people who were coming as refugees or people who were seeking asylum. And this was really important because it meant, unlike in Europe, for example, there are rights that refugees have. For example, the right to freedom of movement.

In many European countries, you're very restricted to not only certain cities but certain parts of certain cities, where in Brazil, once you're accepted as a refugee; you can pretty much go anywhere. You also have a right to work. You also have rights in terms of access to education, access to health care.

Now all of this is listed as rights and all of this is, in a broad context, very progressive framework. The reality of how these things are actually carried out, though, can be very, very different.

LUDDEN: Really. Because tell, I mean it does make, like you said has since. There is a historically a big population in Brazil of African descendants, so it would seem to be a welcoming society, but how does that play out?

Professor LUSANE: For the most part they're been received well, particularly by the Afro-Brazilian community. In the North, for example, you see the African population mix very well with the Afro-Brazilian population. And part of this is that some of the immigrants, those who are there legally, are there as business people and they've opened up shops, they've opened up clubs, they've opened up stores and so their relationship with those communities are seen as very progressive and positive.

LUDDEN: Now I'm curious, a lot of the Africans who are going to Latin America are Muslim and we're talking about two very Catholic countries, right, Brazil and Argentina. Clarence Lusane, has that been an issue?

Professor LUSANE: It's emerging as an issue. In part because in Brazil there's been an upsetting of religious homogeniality(ph), because Catholicism, of course, has dominated the country's history but in recent years, evangelicalism has emerged and the African religions, particularly Condumble, has also emerged as strong alternatives to Catholicism.

So within that mix, a number of the African immigrants and refugees who are Muslim, have also begun to identify themselves along their religious lines. And you've also had, in a small way, a number of converts within Brazil society, to Islam. So that's also, to some degree, a factor and that there's an openness for people who come who may not necessarily be Catholic.

LUDDEN: Anil, did you see this religious tension in Argentina?

Mr. MUNDRA: Yeah. I didn't see tension exactly. You know, again from an historical perspective, there actually has been a lot of Muslim immigration to Argentina as well as to Brazil, largely in the 19th century, and those were mostly Arab immigrants.

But Argentina's now - I mean, it's got the largest mosque in South America. It's got several mosques in Buenos Aires. The previous President, Carlos Menem, he actually was born into a Muslim family and was elected president, which is something we haven't seen here in the U.S. So arguably, Muslims are more easily received in Argentina than they are in the United States.

LUDDEN: Anil Mundra is a former correspondent in Argentina for the Global Post. Professor Clarence Lusane is with American University School of International Service and co-chairs the U.S. Civil Society Committee.

Thanks so much both of you for speaking with us.

Professor LUSANE: Thank you.

Mr. MUNDRA: Thank you.

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