When the violence in Congo became unbearable Afonso decided it was time to pack his bags. He contacted a group of smugglers, and escaped Kinshasa on a cargo ship with a handful of other migrants. As the boat left Africa it headed not north to Europe but due West, to Brazil.
He worked on the ship to help pay his passage and two weeks later, was dropped in the Brazilian port city of Santos, some 55 kms from Sao Paulo.
Afonso is unusual among the transcontinental migrants landing in the Americas. Most do not choose to travel across the seas, opting instead for a flight package that sees them safely deposited in some of the continents biggest cities.
But he is among a wave of migrants that, for many different reasons , instead of taking the perilous journey north over the Sahara and across the Mediterranean, are choosing instead to try a new route to Latin America. Soror Eva Souza, the director of the Scalabrinian Mission in Sao Paulo , a charity that helps refugees and foreign migrants, says that in recent years they have helped people from Angola, Congo, Guinea, Morocco, Cambodia, and Egypt, as well as Nigeria, Togo, Tunisia, and Syria.
With an open and broad legal framework allied with a refugee policy oriented towards south-to-south cooperation, former president Lula da Silva’s government started work in 2003 to make Brazil a regional leader in the matter of displaced people and set the country up as an internationally recognized actor in this context.
That led to some specific waves of migration: of Palestinians in 2007, of Syrians in 2014, and Haitians after the country’s devastating earthquake. But it has also led to a notable uptick in the numbers of African, Asian and Middle Eastern migrants and asylum seekers arriving.
According to official statistics in 2010 Brazil received just 966 asylum requests but in just five years that number had shot up to 28,670 – an increase of 2,868 per cent. The nationalities most represented in the numbers? Migrants from Haiti, Senegal, Syria, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Angola, Congo and Ghana, many of whom would have travelled thousands and thousands of miles to reach Brazil.
Not all the claims were accepted – in fact of the 74,794 asylum requests received since 2010, Brazil had only recognized 8,863 by 2016 – but according to civil society organisations working on this issue, many of those who have their request denied end up staying irregularly.
Of course not all migrants arriving in Brazil claim asylum – those using the country as a launch pad to go north would not have a strong motivation to do, for example – and according to the ministry of Tourism, in 2015 110,983 African travellers came to the country, mostly from South Africa, Angola, Cape Verde, Morocco, Tunisia and Nigeria.