São Paulo, Brazil – Uchen Henry hid in a ship’s crane for two weeks, only sneaking down at night to search for food and water.
“I was very scared of the people on board. They could have thrown me in the sea and nobody would have known,” he told Al Jazeera.
Henry, 21, is one of thousands of Africans who have sought refuge in Brazil in recent years. As traditional refugee hubs tighten borders, Brazil’s growing economic power and relaxed immigration laws are said to be the main factors behind a four-year, 800-percent increase in total asylum requests.
Henry fled Nigeria with just his mobile phone and a little food after his brother, head of a fishing union in Lagos state, was killed following a dispute with a local politician.
“I came home to find him bloody and beaten,” he said. “He died on the way to the hospital. I told the police, but they said they couldn’t do anything.”
Brazil is cool, I feel more comfortable here than in my country. You can be whatever you want to be here. There are more chances here than Africa.
Henry managed to sneak on board a cargo ship headed for Brazil, ending up in the port city of Santos. After spending a week cleaning dishes and tables at a restaurant in return for food and board, the owner gave him some money to travel to nearby São Paulo. He went to a shelter for undocumented immigrants that helped him with an asylum request. Within two months, Henry had his documents.
Surging asylum requests
The majority of Africans arriving in Brazil request asylum in São Paulo, where, by June 30 this year, the number of asylum applications had already vastly surpassed the whole of 2013 – 1,463 in six months compared to 1,302 during the previous 12. Migrants from African nations formed the vast bulk of the increase.
According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), across the whole of Brazil total asylum requests skyrocketed 800 percent between January 2010 and December 2013, from 566 to 5,256. Nigeria, Congo and Angola were the most common countries of origin. A smaller but still significant number of Syrians also sought refuge. Analysts predict the upward trend will only continue.
Today, 18 months since arriving in Santos, Henry works as an English teacher and said he earns about $450 per month. He lives in a small one bedroom apartment in Diadema, a working-class neighbourhood on the outskirts of São Paulo. He is also a musician, producing Afro pop and hip hop.
“Brazil is cool, I feel more comfortable here than in my country,” said Henry. “You can be whatever you want to be here. There are more chances here than Africa.”
Strife and civil conflict continue to push African migration and Brazil’s slowed but still-growing economy – which boasts high employment rates – is a big pull. Brazil’s historic ties with Africa and its significant black Brazilian population also make it attractive.
Luiz Fernando Godinho, a spokesman for UNHCR Brazil, told Al Jazeera the 2014 football World Cup did a lot to raise the country’s profile as a new economic player. He also pointed to Brazil’s “humane and progressive” stance towards refugees.
|Nigeria, Congo, and Angola are the most common countries of origin for asylum seekers in Brazil [Reuters]|
“The large amount of asylum requests Brazil has granted over the last two years really shows the government is conscious of the humanitarian crises around the world,” Godinho said. “It is mindful of keeping the country’s borders open and allowing asylum seekers the chance to become refugees.”
Brazil has a reciprocal entry policy with African nations, meaning visas are easier to obtain and possession of one is enough to guarantee entry. Unlike the United States or Europe, where migrants from poor countries are often denied entry, those coming to Brazil can simply walk in on tourist visas. Dangerous and expensive journeys with human smugglers can be avoided.
Life or death
Congolese Lola Fernandis, 27, entered Brazil in June after buying a World Cup ticket online for Iran versus Bosnia, which automatically granted a tourist visa. He fled his home city of Kinshasa after he was kidnapped and beaten, by what he said was a government-connected militia, on his way home from work at an opposition television channel.
“They told me that if I kept working, they would kill me,” he said.
Fernandis said Brazil was the easiest country for him to enter after he researched options such as France, Belgium, UK, US and Germany. He lives at the Casa do Migrante shelter in central São Paulo, sharing a dorm with four Congolese, a Colombian and a Bolivian. He is currently awaiting the results of his asylum application.
“I think Brazil is a country that accepts everyone – Africa, Asia, Europe,” said Fernandis. “Everyone can come here and do what they want to do. So that’s why I chose Brazil.”
Caritas Arquidiocesana is one of São Paulo’s leading organisations that monitors and suggests public policies advocating the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.
I would like to stay here because it's peaceful. If I can bring my family here one day, I will.
Larissa Leite, external relations lawyer at Caritas, told Al Jazeera that with the increased number of applications, already-tight resources are being stretched. Even with immigrant shelters, public shelters, NGOs and religious organisations providing assistance, there is still an accommodation shortfall. São Paulo is also Brazil’s most expensive city.
“Recently we have seen an increase in the number of immigrants paying low rents to live in São Paulo’s occupied buildings,” said Leite.
The most common barrier to the labour market is language, however, immigrants also face prejudice in that people assume they are uneducated, she said.
“Yet less than one percent that pass through Caritas are illiterate, the majority have high school degrees,” said Leite.
Black African asylum seekers, meanwhile, face a double stigma, given Brazil’s deep-rooted racial division.
Casa do Migrante holds job fairs for documented refugees three times a week, offering short-term contracts mainly in cleaning, construction and factory-packing jobs.
Nigerian Donald Eneka, 36, attends the fairs each day. Enka came to Brazil three-months ago after his house was destroyed and town taken over by the hard-line Islamist group Boko Haram. He sends money to his family back home whenever he can.
Eneka found a low-paid job working in a chicken factory in the interior of São Paulo state, but lost it after a month. As he doesn’t speak Portuguese, he didn’t understand why he was fired and couldn’t argue his case. He said a combination of easy entry and the opportunity to make money drew him to Brazil.
“I would like to stay here because it’s peaceful,” he said. “If I can bring my family here one day, I will.”
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