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By Luis Andres Henao
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Stowed away on cargo ships and unsure where their dangerous journeys will take them, increasing numbers of African immigrants are arriving in Latin America as European countries tighten border controls.
Some head to Mexico and Guatemala as a stepping stone to the United States, others land in the ports of Argentina and Brazil. Though many arrive in Latin America by chance, once in the region they find governments that are more welcoming than in Europe.
"One night I went to the seaport. I was thinking I was going to Europe. Later I found out I was in Argentina," said Sierra Leone immigrant Ibrahim Abdoul Rahman, a former child soldier who said he escaped his country's civil war by sneaking onto a cargo ship for a 35-day voyage.
In Brazil, Africans are now the largest refugee group, representing 65 percent of all asylum seekers, according to the Brazil's national committee for refugees.
There are now more than 3,000 African immigrants living in Argentina, up from just a few dozen eight years ago. The number of asylum seekers each year has risen abruptly, to about 1,000 a year, and a third of them are African.
"We're seeing a steep increase in the number of Africans coming to the country and seeking asylum," said Carolina Podesta, of the Argentine office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
This is still low compared to the tens of thousands of immigrants who make the journey to Europe each year, but Africans are expected to come to Latin America in increasing numbers.
"It's a search for new destinations," Podesta said, adding that many were being pushed by tougher European immigration and security policies put in place after September 11, 2001.
"We're seeing a stable trend and it's still growing."
For many, their journey starts by dodging port controls in Africa and then surviving on water and biscuits for weeks.
"We've seen cases where they arrive hidden inside the rudder of a ship," said Fernando Manzanares, Argentina's immigration director. "Imagine what it's like to cross the Atlantic hidden in such a small space, trying to evade the crew."
VISAS AND CLASSES
Millions of Europeans arrived in South America aboard ships in the 19th century escaping poverty and war, while Africans arrived on slave ships to work on Brazil's vast sugar cane plantations.
Nowadays, Africans might arrive on cargo ships or commercial planes and then seek asylum or overstay tourist visas. In Argentina, they can obtain temporary work visas shortly after arriving and renew them every three months.
"The migratory policies of the country are very favourable," said Manzanares. "It's a reflection of history. What happened with European immigrants 100 years ago is now happening with African immigrants."
Africans in Argentina can also obtain free health services and some take Spanish lessons taught by Catholic charities.
Many eventually settle here, marry, or become Argentine citizens. Some Africans who have arrived legally have managed to work as musicians and a few others play professional soccer for local clubs. The majority earn a living selling jewellery on the streets of Buenos Aires.
Abdoul Rahman met his Argentine wife when he sold her a ring five years ago. He sends money to his mother and seven sisters in Africa and stays close to his Muslim religion at Buenos Aires' Alberdi mosque.
There Rahman meets dozens of other Africans for Friday prayers. Although some of those interviewed said they faced racism in Argentina, they agreed that it was minor compared to the xenophobia and anti-immigration laws that African migrants face in Europe.
Italy enacted legislation in July that made it a felony to be an illegal immigrant or to help one.
During the 1990s a large number of Angolans fled the civil war and settled in communities in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Now increasing numbers of immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo are escaping violence and civil war back home and seeking asylum in Brazil, which can be an easy country for African immigrants to adapt to because it has the largest black population outside of Africa.
"The adaptation process is really good in Brazil," said Carolina Montenegro of UNHCR in Brazil. "For Africans it tends to be easier because of this cultural heritage."
More and more immigrants from Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia are also making their way to Mexico and Central America via cargo ships, hoping to eventually reach the United States over land.
The number of Africans passing through the detention centre in Tapachula, a city near Mexico's southern border, was more than 600 last year, three times as many as in 2007.
Some immigrants make epic journeys through many countries to find a new home. Mohamed Ahmed Hassen, 31, a Somali truck driver, sold his land to pay for his journey. He travelled through Kenya and Tanzania to Mozambique where he paid a trafficker $1,500 (897 pounds) to get him on a ship to Sao Paulo.
"We didn't know if it was day or night," he said. "We had no watches to see the date. We only knew we were there a long time."
From Brazil, he went to Colombia and then by boat to Panama, on to Costa Rica, then Nicaragua and finally Guatemala where he was detained and where he is now seeking asylum.
Liberian immigrant Emmanuel Danso, 18, came to Argentina in July stowing aboard a cargo ship after his parents were killed during his country's civil war. Now he wants to study to become a laboratory technician.
"Back home I'm homeless; I'm an orphan," Danso said, as he walked into a Spanish lesson at a Catholic charity. "But in this country there's great opportunity for me."
(Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in Mexico, Sarah Grainger in Guatemala City and Stuart Grudgings in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Kieran Murray)