Argentina and Brazil: New Territories for West African Migration


Brazil and Argentina have become part of the ever-changing geography of African migration. Regis Minvielle chronicles the precariousness of African migrants’ lives as the two countries reconsider the generous immigration policies that were created during their boom years.

On 20 May 2018, fishermen rescued a catamaran that was drifting 110 kilometres off the coast of Maranhão State in northeastern Brazil. On board were 25 passengers from Senegal, Nigeria, Guinea Conakry and Sierra Leone who had set out from Cape Verde. The event received extensive media coverage and sparked interest in new migration routes from Africa to South America. Other than a few migrants who have hidden on freighters bound for the ports of Buenos Aires, Argentina or Santos, Brazil, the sea route remains unlikely. However, increased airline routes have considerably advanced South America as a destination for African migrants. South African Airways has operated a regular Johannesburg– São Paulo service since 1971, but more recently, in July 2013, Ethiopian Airlines opened a route between Addis Ababa and São Paulo via Lome. Six months later, Royal Air Maroc inaugurated three weekly connections between Casablanca and São Paulo. These flight paths are part of a new geography of African migration that is emerging in response to the fortresses erected in the global North.

The Pioneers of the 1990s

The genesis of this migration goes back to the early 1990s. Due to the “closure” of the Mediterranean Sea,[i] Malian nationals who found themselves caught in the migration nets of North Africa faced three narrowing options. They could wait on Europe’s doorstep in the hope that the door would re-open, they could take a chance in make shift boats operating from the Libyan coast, or they could look for another destination. Many decided to change their course and applied for visas from the Brazilian embassy in Tripoli. At first, Brazil was seen as a useful stopover on the way to the United States, a place they could earn enough money to recoup the high cost of air travel. Given their desperate situations, it didn’t matter whether they travelled in a straight line: what mattered was to find a new base.

Once in Brazil, the Malians found that neighbouring Argentina offered even better wages, which meant better prospects for higher remittances to send to families at home. At that time, before the economic depression set in in 1998, the peso was still on a par with the US dollar and a real estate boom created a strong demand for labour. The Malians, already accustomed to construction work from their days in Libya, were able to fit right in.

Senegalese migrants started to arrive in the Argentine capital around the same time. Some were seduced by the stories of Guinean sailors who praised Buenos Aires as a wealthy city, like the cities in Europe. Others made connections at the Argentine embassy in Dakar.[ii] Many of these Senegalese pioneers had already experienced migration in Saudi Arabia or other West African countries. Their economic and social success, enabled by real estate investments and marriages in the host country, inspired a new wave of Senegalese migrants in the second half of the 2000s. They now constitute the majority of African migrants in Argentina.

As with migration flows generally, the success of the pioneers attracted young people from the home country in search of status and prosperity. From Dakar to Douala, via Abidjan or Conakry, the quest for self-advancement fed on a set of structural push factors that exist in most sending societies: a saturated urban labour market, endemic unemployment, deteriorating living conditions in rural areas, and political and environmental crises.

Thus the pioneers, who had mostly arrived from urban areas and with migration experience, were succeeded by new figures: young single men, without trade or school qualifications, of rural origin, mainly from around the Senegalese cities of Diourbel, Touba, Thiès and Kaolack. Like their elders, they refused to sit at home and followed the scent of the generous immigration programmes offered by Brazil and Argentina.

Open and Closed: Migration Policies in South America

After waves of European immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Argentina and Brazil tightened their borders in the 1970s with the rise of dictatorial regimes. [iii] Instead of being associated with the settlement and development of vast territories, migrants were now linked to the fear of “outside subversion”, and immigration control became an integral part of police surveillance systems. The view of migration as a security and control issue intensified again with the growth of cocaine trafficking in the 1980s.

The democratic transitions in the early 1990s paved the way for a more positive conception of immigration. [iv] Economic policies based on regional integration and the free movement of goods and services were advocated as a way to break with past isolation. This new thinking also raised the need to redefine migration policies, a project strongly endorsed by the centre-left movements that gained power in both countries in the early 2000s.

In Argentina, the government of Nestor Kirchner implemented the Patria Grande programme, which regularised the affairs of more than 630,000 undocumented migrants between 2003 and 2007. Other policies were also reformed to the benefit of migrants. While waiting for the Argentine National Refugee Commission to rule on their fate, asylum seekers now receive a temporary residence permit that is valid for a period of three months and renewable several times. It gives the bearer the right to work, access to housing, public healthcare and public schooling for children, as well as freedom of movement.

In the same vein, the Brazilian government promulgated a law regularising all illegal immigrants who entered the territory before 1 February 2009. This and other new policies reflected not only Brasilia’s desire to assert regional leadership but also to conquer new markets globally, including in Africa. Under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003–2011), Brazil presented itself as a nation of African heritage, with a natural calling for greater presence on the continent. [v] The 2005 opening of new embassies in Yaoundé and Kinshasa was part of this expansion strategy, bringing the number of Brazilian diplomatic posts in Africa to 35. By providing a network of access to visas, they played a key role in making Brazil an important gateway to the Americas for African emigration.

Those unable to obtain a Brazilian visa often turned to Ecuador, with its even more open migration policy. The country’s 2008 Constitution affirms the right to migration and asserts that “no one shall be declared illegal by reason of his or her status as a migrant”. This led to the abolition of visas and access to free movement for all foreigners. However, transcontinental migration soon put this measure to the test. According to the National Directorate of Migration, the diasporas from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Nigeria increased by 300 percent between 2008 and 2009, leading to visa requirements being reinstated for nationals of these countries in September 2010, and for Senegalese nationals in November 2015.

After entering Ecuador, the migrants – with the help of smugglers – cross through Peru and into northwestern Brazil, where they apply for asylum. While their application is processed, which can take several years, asylum-seekers keep a “protocol” receipt that gives them the right to work and access services.

Although it is difficult to determine the numbers of irregular migrants, the figures of Brazil’s federal police, which is in charge of immigration issues, show a clear trend. From 2000 to 2014, the tally rose from 3,726 to 15,554 Africans from 48 countries, including many West African states. [vi]

Precarious Activities

The documentation processes in Brazil and Argentina may differ, but the main occupation of migrants remains the same: street trading. A lack of skills and social capital makes it difficult for African migrants to integrate into the formal – and increasingly specialised and competitive – job market. The saturation of the street market in the metropolises of Buenos Aires or São Paulo, as well as competition with locals, has led migrants to shift towards medium-sized towns and into other low-skilled occupations. In southern Brazil, for example, some migrants are finding work in the agri-food sector. The states of Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul have many poultry factories, some of which export to the Middle East. These companies keep a Muslim workforce to guarantee their customers a Halal product. Religion thus becomes a resource for Senegalese as well as Syrian and Palestinian refugees familiar with the dhabiha method of slaughter, which can only be performed by the hand of a Muslim invoking the name of Allah. However, the low wages (225–330 Euros per month) and harsh working conditions often send the Senegalese back to street trading.

Despite their increasing visibility in public spaces (sidewalks, railway stations, markets, squares, beaches, etc.), street vendors are not the only African figures around. In Brazil and Argentina, more and more smallscale migrant entrepreneurs are positioning themselves in the “ethnic market”, exploiting the locals’ growing interest in exoticism and African heritage. Women open restaurants, afro hair salons, and dance and percussion schools. African culture provides marketable goods, including guided trips to Guinea or Senegal for drumming and dance classes. Others sell loincloths in the central district of Republica in São Paulo, mainly to Afro-Brazilian women seeking to revive their African roots.


African migrants’ initial hopes for success are often frustrated within a few months of their arrival in South America. Despite welcoming immigration policies and administration, the profits from street vending are often not as high as expected. They may cover the necessities of basic living, but there are no surpluses to send home as remittances – an important factor in the initial decision to leave. The life of a street vendor can also be dangerous, due to police repression and conflicts with other traders.

The feeling of having been misled is reinforced by the economic crisis and devaluations of the Brazilian real and the Argentine peso that have decimated remittances to families. The sacrifices endured on a daily basis are not converted into financial compensation. Instead of new riches in an American eldorado, most newcomers find only disillusionment.

The rise of right-wing governments has also called existing immigration policies into question. In the name of reducing public spending, the Brazilian government led by Michel Temer since 2016 is considering the closure of African embassies, signalling that the continent will again take a back seat in their foreign-relations priorities.

Since the beginning of 2017, the long tolerated hawkers of Buenos Aires and São Paulo have been subjected to campaigns of stigmatisation and expulsion. Justifying police operations in Buenos Aires, the city’s attorney-general, Luis Cevasco, characterised street workers as “delinquent organisations that appropriate the public space, circumvent taxes, launder money and disadvantage established traders”. [vii] In addition, Argentinian President Mauricio Macri is speeding up the procedures to expel irregular migrants and those with a criminal history.

As seen elsewhere in Europe and the United States, the return of the political right and anti-migrant repression is increasing the precariousness of African migrants’ lives. It may well lead them to again search out new territories.

Translated from French


[i]Choplin A and Lombard J, Quand la mer se ferme. Du transit au post-transit en Mauritanie [When the sea is closed. From transit to post-transit in Mauritania], Hommes et Migrations, n° 1286–1287, 2010.

[ii]The Argentine embassy in Dakar was closed in 2002, following the financial crisis.

[iii]Marmora L, Logiques politiques et intégration régionale. Les migrations en Amérique Latine [Political logic and regional integration. Migration in Latin America], Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales, vol. XI, n° 2, 1995.

[iv]Devoto F, Historia de la Inmigración en la Argentina [History of Immigration in Argentina]. Editorial Sudamericana, 2009.

[v]Lafargue F, Le Brésil, Une puissance africaine [Brazil, an African power], Afrique Contemporaine, n° 228, 2008.

[vi]Uebel R and Rückert A, Aspectos gerais da dinámica imigratória no Brasil no século XXI [General aspects of immigration dynamics in Brazil in the 21st century], Confins, n° 31, 2017.

[vii]See: Clarín, 1 January 2017