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African immigrants seek refuge in Argentina

While African immigration is on the rise, those who make the move face challenges.

Abdoul Aziz Mbaye (left) and Abdoul Diome, in the small and very simple hotel room they share. Both came from Senegal more than a year ago. (Anil Mundra/GlobalPost)

BUENOS AIRES — If you lived in Zaire in the 1990s, you didn't want to get on the wrong side of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. That's what pro-democracy activist Celestin Nengumbi Sukama did and it landed him, of all places, in Argentina.

Before coming, he didn't even know what language Argentines spoke. All he knew was that he had to get out of Zaire, and the Argentine visa was the only one he managed to get, so he seized the opening before the Mobutu regime could throw him back in jail.

Upon his arrival here in 1995, Sukama was the epitome of a stranger in a strange land, as foreign to Argentines as they were to him. “At that time, one could spend the whole week without seeing an African,” he said. “It was extremely hard.”

But things have changed in the last decade in Argentina. It's now estimated that there are at least 5,000 Africans from at least 29 countries here, with Senegal, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ghana topping the list. Africans can be seen in Buenos Aires and a few other Argentine cities — often peddling inexpensive merchandise on the streets.

Now that more Africans are arriving, they're gaining visibility and publicity. But it's not clear that they're any less marginalized now than when they were invisible.

Argentina has fashioned itself as a European country — even as indigenous Americans from Bolivia and Peru flooded into Buenos Aires — and this self-image is unlikely to change soon no matter the number of immigrants making their home here.

Like Sukama, nearly all Africans arrive seeking asylum from the Argentine state, which has granted 440 such requests from Africans to date. That's about 15 percent of Argentina's total recognized refugee population, which is growing every year. Argentina received a record number of asylum requests in 2008, with the most coming from Africans.

There are war victims here, some of them orphaned children, who crossed the Atlantic spontaneously as stowaways in boats. Others, just fed up with poverty at home, bought a flight and a visa to Brazil, and then illegally crossed the border into Argentina.

That latter is the usual route for Senegalese immigrants, lately the largest and most visible contingent of asylum seekers. Senegalese men can be seen on every busy street corner in Buenos Aires, selling cheap jewelry and watches out of suitcases.

Seeking economic opportunity rather than fleeing violent persecution, many Senegalese immigrants pay travel agents who promise them legal Argentine papers upon arrival in Brazil, only to find themselves led wading across a river into Argentina to avoid border control.

“If I had understood that I was going to have to cross a border illegally, I wouldn't have come,” said Abdoul Aziz Mbaye, who made the journey from Senegal over a year ago. “I'm not that stupid.”