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For Muslim migrants, religious prejudices compound the horrors of the Latin American route

SAO PAULO, Brazil: Among the thousands of migrants who try to reach the border between Mexico and the United States each month, the presence of Muslims – most of whom leave African and Asian countries in search of a better future – is both visible and constant.

There are no official figures on the flow of Muslim migrants via the Latin American route, but organizations helping immigrants in the region report that their numbers are on the rise.

They not only face the usual hardships of the northward journey, such as exploitation by coyotes, but also specific hardships, including religious prejudices along the way and obstacles regarding keeping their faith. .

One of the main gateways for Muslim immigrants and refugees to Latin America, Sao Paulo, has welcomed people from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and African countries in recent years.

Graffiti in Brazil depicts Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who died in 2015 with his family when their canoe capsized. (AFP)

“I estimate that 20% of all the people we welcomed in 2020 were Muslims,” said Fr. Paolo Parise, who runs a Catholic immigrant center called Mission Peace in Brazil’s largest city.

Parise said most of the Muslim foreigners assisted by the institution come from countries like Nigeria, Mali and Senegal, in addition to some groups in the Middle East.

“We also recently welcomed Afghans,” he added.

These migrants and refugees have traditionally viewed Brazil as a transit country, especially in the past five years, a period marked by economic decline and dwindling opportunities.

“They enter Brazil with tourist visas and later they apply for refugee status,” Parise said.

After a few months, most of them attempt to enter the United States, using traditional routes used by Haitians, Venezuelans and other groups.

But each route is full of obstacles and disappointments. As of July 2021, 70% of asylum claims filed in Mexico were concentrated in the border city of Chiapas, which receives daily flights from people deported from the United States under Title 42 legislation.

Migrants march on the Mexican capital, demanding “justice and dignity”. (AFP)

The public health order, issued in March 2020 by the Trump administration, justifies the deportations on the grounds that there is a communicable disease, namely COVID-19, in the migrant’s country of origin.

Take the case of Ahmed Usman, 34, of Ghanaian descent, who now resides in the Mexican city of Tijuana, on the border with the United States. Usman lived in Brazil for a year and eight months.

“I worked in a factory in Criciuma (a town in southern Brazil). After paying my rent and utilities and sending some money to my family, I didn’t have any money left, ”he told Arab News.

Criciuma has a small Muslim community, but Usman said he received more help from Christians.

In 2016, he decided to go to the United States and began a long journey through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala, until his arrival in Mexico.

“We were running out of money. We saw many people get sick and die on the journey, ”he said, exhaustion and disbelief in his eyes.

Migrants travel north in “caravans” along dangerous routes through Latin America and Central America. (AFP)

Usman spent eight months in Costa Rica, where he was helped by a Catholic church and a mosque in the city of San José.

“We were also helped by a man who fed us several times. And he understood that we don’t eat pork, ”he said.

In 2017, it finally arrives in Mexico. He ended up finding work in Tijuana and has not tried to cross the border so far.

Usman’s story is similar to that of many other desperate people who make their way to Mexico, increasingly seen as a country of transit and asylum.

In 2014, 2,100 people arrived in the country to apply for refugee status; by 2019, that number had risen to over 70,000.

A member of the US National Guard keeps watch during a border patrol operation in La Joya, Texas. (Getty Images via AFP)

Numbers fell in 2020 as travel restrictions imposed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic slowed global migration but, between January and November 2021, the country received more than 123,000 asylum claims from people from the Caribbean, Central America and South America. like Haiti, Honduras, Cuba, El Salvador, Chile, Venezuela, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Brazil and Colombia.

Usman’s account is also a good example of the plight of Muslim migrants along the Latin American route.

Most of them find little support within the Islamic community and have to rely on help from Catholics or civic organizations.

“Most of the Muslim communities in the region see these immigrants as competitors or as a problem. Some of them have resources to help them but prefer to avoid what they see as problems, ”said Cheikh Abderrahman Agdaou, of Moroccan descent, who lives in El Salvador and has intervened in many immigrant cases these past few years. last years.

On several occasions, Agdaou has assisted Uyghur, Syrian and Iraqi refugees who did not have the necessary documents to continue traveling to the United States, coordinating aid with Catholic entities and the UN.

Members of the Latina Muslim Foundation build a shelter for migrants in Mexico. (Provided)

He also had to give his support to the former detainees of the Guantanamo prison, who were granted refugee status in El Salvador thanks to his support.

“Once, a Syrian family with four children was taken to El Salvador by a coyote and left there at the airport. The person just disappeared and they didn’t know what to do, ”he said.

Agdaou said he intervened and helped the family return to Syria.


In July 2021, 70% of Mexican asylum claims were concentrated in the border city of Chiapas.

Chiapas receives daily flights from people deported from the United States under Title 42 public health order.

Title 42 justifies expulsions on the grounds that there is a communicable disease in the migrant’s country of origin.

According to him, Islamic organizations offer more support to immigrants and wield greater influence in relatively wealthy countries with large Muslim communities, notably Brazil, Chile and Argentina.

“But in many countries Muslims feel like foreigners and therefore should not get involved in politics,” he said.

Members of the Latina Muslim Foundation take their time for a selfie photo while working at a migrant center in Mexico. (Provided)

Agdaou wants regional Islamic entities to improve the level of coordination between them and civic organizations that help immigrants.

Other problems appear to be of a more serious nature. Some immigrants from sub-Saharan countries said they felt discriminated against by Arab Muslims who run mosques in Latin American countries.

With so much difficulty, most Muslim immigrants end up turning to Catholic institutions for humanitarian aid along the way.

“We don’t welcome as many Muslims in Latin America as our European counterparts do in Europe, but a number of them continually pass through our shelters on the road to the United States,” said Elvy Monzant, Executive Secretary of the Catholic Church of Latin America and the Caribbean Network on Migration, Refugees and Human Trafficking.

Muslim migrants are welcomed at a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico. (Provided)

Monzant told Arab News that Catholic immigrant homes try to respect Islamic traditions and are happy to welcome Muslims.

Most of them pay attention to food bans and some of them even have special rooms for their prayers.

“But we could make unwanted mistakes in our work with them. So places run by the Muslim community could help them feel better, ”said Monzant.


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