Africans tough it out in Argentina

Marketplace Staff Jan 5, 2010

Africans tough it out in Argentina

Marketplace Staff Jan 5, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: If history’s any guide, this year more than a 1,000 asylum seekers will show up in Argentina. Most of them won’t be from South America’s traditional sources — places like Peru or Colombia. They will be from Africa. Tougher rules in Europe and the United States have pushed refugees to find new destinations. But what they find in South America is not always what they expect. From Buenos Aires, Ian Mount reports.

IAN MOUNT: Outside one of Buenos Aires’s main train stations, commuters squeeze down a sidewalk clogged with vendors hawking toys, food, and underwear. The peddlers shout their prices above the din of city buses. One vendor stands in glum silence next to his costume jewelry, and he stands out.

John barely speaks Spanish. He’s 23, a recent refugee and a black African in a country with a population that’s almost entirely white. Poverty and political strife made him quit his native Liberia but, he says Argentina is not the Promised Land either.

JOHN: There’s no work for we refugees. There’s nothing for us here.

Well, they do find shelter here. Like the dingy boarding houses in the blue collar San Cristobal neighborhood. A small room here, crammed with four single beds, goes for about $180 a month.

Abdu Lahat Fall, a 25-year-old from Senegal, makes the rent by hawking $3 rings on the street.

ABDU LAHAT FALL: Many times you make $15. And once in a while if you have a big day you make $30. But there are days you go out to work, and you come back with nothing.

For all that, Argentina has its upside. There are liberal policies on immigration. Many remember the 1970’s and early 80’s when Argentines had to flee overseas to escape the dictatorship at home. The recent refugees from Africa are often helped by the Catholic refugee charity FCCAM.

Father Sante Cervellin works with the organization. He says Africans first began arriving from Senegal seven years ago, and their numbers keep growing.

Although Argentina is a nation of immigrants, most of those settlers were white. They came from Italy and Spain in the 19th and 20th centuries. The arrival now of thousands of black Africans — just as the economy heads south and crime is rising — is making some white Argentines tense.

EMILIANO MENCIA: I think that there should be more controls on the border, no?

That’s Emiliano Mencia, a 28-year-old apprentice bus driver.

MENCIA: There are, for example, a lot of Bolivians, Africans, Brazilians, and Paraguayans. People who cross the border without documents.

Many Africans complain of discrimination. They say Argentines often address them by the names of random famous blacks, such as Pele. It’s also common for boarding houses to refuse to rent to them.

John, the street vendor from Liberia, says a simple trip across town can be an ordeal.

JOHN: Like if I went to something like bus or train, when I sit no one likes to sit behind me. Everybody, they’re just like they’re scared of me, you know?

But despite this disillusionment, few Africans will be rushing home.

SAM: I’ll stay here, I’ll stay here.

That’s Sam, a 28-year-old who stowed away on a boat 18 months ago from his native Ivory Coast. As tough as Buenos Aires might be, he says it’s better than back home, where armed police rule the roost and civilian life can be cheap.

SAM: If you don’t have document, they can shoot you. Right now, right now.

In Buenos Aires, I’m Ian Mount for Marketplace.

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