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African immigrants seek refuge in Argentina

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

Entering illegally might not be such a bad option for refugees, though, since they're pardoned through Argentina's 2006 “Law of Refugee Recognition and Protection.” But that immunity only comes when asylum is officially granted, a process that can take months or years.

In the meantime, asylum seekers are given the appropriately named “Precarious Residency” permit that must be renewed every three months. Every African street vendor has stories of police officers who don't recognize the document and demand bribes of cash or merchandise. Their precarious status bars them from signing leases, so nearly all of them live in cheap hotels, two or three to a room.

In the case of Senegalese immigrants, one of the reasons they hang in limbo for so long is the question of whether they qualify as refugees. The United Nations definition is limited to people subject to persecution in their home country, and does not include those simply seeking to better their economic situation.

But Monica Olmedo, a lawyer representing about 300 Senegalese asylum cases that remain unresolved after more than a year, argues that these economic migrants are bona fide refugees. “They're escaping an economic policy that makes it so that they must leave their country,” said Olmedo, who has married a Senegalese man and is now known as Mamdiarra in the community.

“Everything is bad back home; nothing's going right,” said Senegalese asylum-seeker Mbaye. “If someone has come here from Africa, it's because it was the last option that they had.” He says that the dearth of options explains why they would come to Argentina, a developing country whose language is almost nonexistent in Africa, rather than the usual northern destinations, which have become increasingly strict on immigration over the years.

Mbaye is ambivalent about having made the move, he said, but on balance, “it's better to stay here.” Like most of his compatriots, he lives simply, with a shared bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. He must work hard out in the street nearly every day to earn an average of about 1,000 pesos — about $270 — per month. He pays a quarter of that in rent, but most months he's able to set aside enough to send home to his family in Dakar. After all, the whole reason he came to Argentina was to support his family back home.

But finding work is not always easy. In his 15 years here, Celestin Nengumbi Sukama has never held a sustained job. This despite his bachelor's degree in finance, local courses in accounting and Spanish, fluency in four languages — including excellent English, a highly sought skill — and his adopted Argentine citizenship. He says that prospective employers always give him the run-around when they see his African name or face, as do government offices when he appeals for help.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina's identity as a European country in the
New World had taken hold.  But its population is beginning to shift and as that happens, said Sukama, a subtle racism is beginning to appear in the culture, which views Africans as capable only of construction work or street-vending.

“It's extremely hard to understand that there is racism in Argentina,” Sukama said. “But a black man who is facing rejection from one office to another one when going and asking for some help or trying to stand for his rights will come to that conclusion.” 

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