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.
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.
Although the vast majority flew into Sao Paulo, official statistics show 1,366 people from the African continent crossed into Brazil by land (mostly through Paraná on the southern border and through the great northern border states of Amapa, Roraima, Amazonas and Acre), while 125 arrived by sea.
An important factor in this new pattern of migration was the turn-of-the-century view of Brazil as an emerging economic powerhouse: building ahead of the 2010 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games and the financial optimism brought by former presidents Lula and Dilma Rousseff made it an interesting proposition for those willing to try life elsewhere.
And if Brazil itself was becoming a draw, there was nowhere more attractive than Sao Paulo: a megalopolis of more than 20 million people, Brazil’s financial capital and one of the richest cities in the world, it became a major destination for local and international migrants. In fact, government statistics show that as many as 45 per cent of the city’s population are migrants.
Although the country’s economic outlook has deteriorated since then – with a financial crisis since 2015 – few migrants mentioned this as a push factor to leave. Many say that even in a downturn they are better off in the Americas than they were back home.
Evidence of these more recent migrations is everywhere. Lalingé , a Senegalese restaurant in the bustling Centro neighbourhood, is a place where migrants from all around the African continent gather to talk, do business, exchange the latest news and, of course, eat together.
Mamadou from Mali makes his living selling food in front of the Guaianazes metro station in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on 05 July of 2017. He learned how to cook traditional Brazilian dishes while working in an improvised kiosk after coming to Brazil 5 years ago – now he owns his own. His wife and son are still in Mali. (Photo by Marcelo Pereira).
Abu, 37, a Senegalese refugee, sells African wax-prints in the surroundings of Republica Square in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on 04 July of 2017. (Photo by Marcelo Pereira)
“Here I can at least walk free”