Caught in the middle: West African migration through the Americas

West Africa is a region characterized by a long-standing culture of migration, to a variety of destinations and for a variety of causes. While there has been substantial media, research and programmatic focus on migration from West Africa towards Europe, the majority of West African migration is intra-regional, and there is substantial migration towards North Africa and elsewhere on the continent. However, recently there has been a surge in inter-continental movement of West Africans gaining attention. West Africans – and Africans more broadly – have been traveling to South America by plane or boat and journeying northward, generally seeking to enter the US, although as this becomes increasingly difficult, stating intentions to travel to Canada as well. While the numbers making the journey are small in comparison to other routes, and small compared to the numbers of Central Americans trying to make new lives in the US, it is nonetheless an important phenomenon.

The phrase “the cruelty is the point” has frequently been applied to the evolving migration and asylum policy of the United States under the Trump administration, with the assumption that migration can be deterred if it is made sufficiently difficult. While policies focusing on the southern US border have generally been crafted with Central Americans in mind, what do they mean for the (West) Africans who find themselves subject to their vagaries? And what should we make of the growing trend of West Africans embarking on this long, arduous, expensive journey?

Who is going and why?

As early as 2010 UNHCR was pointing to a rise in asylum seekers from Africa and Asia traveling to South America before joining northward mixed migration routes. However, the phenomenon has recently gained new momentum. Some 4,779 Africans were apprehended in Mexico from January through July of 2019, which is almost a fourfold increase over the same period the previous year. Somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 are currently stranded in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula. There are no comprehensive figures available for the Africans who are waiting at the northern Mexican border with the US, but they appear to number in the hundreds, perhaps thousands, and have been reported across its breadth, from Tijuana to Ciudad Juarez to Nuevo Laredo.

Border crossings from Mexico to the US have also increased. During just one week in early summer 2019 the US Border Patrol stopped more than 500 African refugees and migrants in the Del Rio sector of the border alone. Between the beginning of June and mid-July 2019, Border Patrol agents apprehended more than 1,100 Africans in this single sector of the border. This compares to the 211 Africans who were brought into Border Patrol custody in 2018 across the length of the US/Mexico border.

It is not easy to pinpoint numbers of West African refugees and migrants journeying northwards through the Americas, and the above figures are fragmentary and may include some overlap.  However, they clearly illustrate an upward trend. It is equally challenging to find precise nationality breakdowns of these West Africans. News reports have alluded to West Africans from a variety of countries including Mauritania, Ghana, Togo, Nigeria and Gambia. A communique issued by Africans at Mexico’s southern border also mentions the presence of persons from Burkina Faso, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Senegal and Sierra Leone. Reasons given for making the difficult journey include persecution on the basis of race, sexual orientation and political affiliation. Cameroonians predominate in the media coverage; tens of thousands of anglophone Cameroonians have fled the country since armed conflict flared at the end of 2017, resulting in the deaths of some 1,850 persons and the internal displacement of approximately 530,000. Africans from other nations across the continent are also substantially represented, including from Eritrea, DRC and Angola.

Caught between shifting policies

Migration policies and procedures in the US and Mexico have been changing rapidly, and this has had concrete impacts on access to the asylum process.

Pressure on Mexico

Mexico has acceded to the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, adopted the Cartagena Declaration and ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. The administration of president Andrés Manuel López Obrador also signaled a change to a more open approach to migration in its early days. However, the Mexican economy is highly dependent on trade with the United States, making tariffs on Mexican goods threatened by the Trump administration in May an effective point of leverage. As a result, in June Mexico agreed to a deal with the US designed to limit migration flows reaching the US southern border. Mexico’s support for the US agenda has included accepting migrants returned under the so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols” (also known as “Remain in Mexico”) and utilizing its recently formed national guard to carry out border patrol/control functions. Mexico also decided in July that it would no longer provide transit visas – known as salvoconductos – to Africans seeking passage through Mexico at its southern border, although even before this the process of issuance was slow and led to frustration.


At Mexico’s northern border with the US a process known as “metering” has also served as a major roadblock for all those seeking US entry, including West Africans. This US policy was used in a limited manner to deal with a specific backlog under the Obama administration, but the Trump administration has used it in a more consistent and comprehensive manner since April 2018 to limit the number of asylum seekers and migrants who can enter the US and thereby make an asylum claim each day.  Would-be asylum seekers are turned around at the border, and then must enter their names on informal waiting lists. US Customs and Border Protection then communicates how many people they will let through on a given day.  At the end of September “La Lista” – the list that governs entry from Tijuana – held about 11,000 names. According to reporting from the northern Mexico border, “Some days in Tijuana, those in charge of managing the list will call ten or twelve numbers; often, they call only one or two — or none at all.” As of early August the number of people reportedly waiting on these unofficial lists across the entirety of Mexico’s northern border stood at 26,000.

“Asylum ban”

The situation became further complicated with a new US administrative order taking effect on July 16 which would render ineligible for asylum any person who had passed through another country before requesting asylum in the US. This means that all non-Mexicans who waited their turn to seek legal entry – in spite of the delays caused by metering – would effectively be barred from asylum in the US unless they had previously made an asylum claim in a third country and been denied. All African asylum seekers would be affected by the rule, unless able to qualify for an exception, such as for victims of torture.

Dubbed the “Third-Country Asylum Rule” by the US Department of Homeland Security, the order is more commonly known as the “asylum ban.” According to Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, “[The policy] will give us the ability to, first of all, deter some people coming with asylum claims, which is part of the intention.” The new rule was condemned by UNHCR, which stated “it will place in danger vulnerable persons in need of international protection from violence or persecution.”

While the policy was immediately challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, on September 11 the US Supreme Court ruled that it would allow the rule to take effect while the legal challenges are playing out. It is possible that the courts will eventually overturn the new regulation, but litigation is projected to last into 2020, and possibly into the next presidential administration. Meanwhile, African asylum-seekers are in a state of limbo.

Humanitarian and protection challenges

Refugees and migrants traveling from Africa to the Americas face many dangers and challenges along the route, both those inherent in the journey itself and those which stem from the implementation of the policies outlined above.

Grueling journey

Having flown or sailed from Africa to South America, an overland journey through Central America is typically the next step for Africans seeking to reach the US. Departing from Ecuador, a common jumping-off point due to its relaxed visa regime, they must cross the Darien Gap, roughly 100 miles of swampy jungle spanning the border between Colombia and Panama. It is characterized by BBC as “one of the most dangerous jungles on earth, full of drug cartels, bandits and poisonous animals.” There are no roads, and those who make the trek must carry all their supplies and possessions. People become separated from their group. Drownings are common. African refugees and migrants who have made the journey speak of its difficulty and trauma, including the dead bodies they saw en route. Even beyond the challenges of the Darien Gap, they face serious violations, including robbery, extortion and hostile treatment by authorities.

Arrival in limbo

Surviving the journey is the first step, but as elaborated above, African asylum seekers face substantial challenges upon arriving at the border. Valery, a Cameroonian asylum-seeker in Tijuana, Mexico explained that he had not expected the long waiting list that governs the right merely to enter the US to make an asylum claim, saying “I’m surprised! We are begging for a place to stay, as a refugee.” His number on the waiting-list is 3,500, and as of mid-August, he had already been in Tijuana for more than 70 days. Reporting from mid-July suggested wait times of 7-9 months at the San Ysidro port of entry connecting Tijuana to San Diego, and that was before the new asylum ban was allowed to take effect. This situation of limbo is compounded by the fact that these refugees and migrants do not have legal status in Mexico, having entered on 20 day tourist visas, known as salvoconductos, that do not allow for employment or access to formal healthcare or housing, and in any case will long since have expired.

Further south in Tapachula, near the Mexico/Guatemala border, more Africans are stranded, no longer able even to obtain the salvoconducto that would allow them to pass to Mexico’s northern border. As is the case throughout the journey, here they depend on voluntary assistance from civil society, charitable organizations and the local population. While Mexican security forces surveil the encampment, the humanitarian contribution of the authorities has been scanty beyond the provision of an ambulance and some portable toilets. Hundreds are currently living in tents – during the rainy season – and relying on rain and a nearby stream for cooking water. According to Diop Abou from Mauritania, “This isn’t a camp for migrants.  It is a prison…  We are tired.  We sleep in the street.  We don’t know when we will leave.  We are not given food or drink.”

Dangers abound

It is also important to underline the prevailing physical insecurity at the Mexican border. In 2018 Tijuana was the city with the highest murder rate worldwide outside of active war zones, but even so is considered safer than Ciudad Juarez. In Nuevo Laredo crime proliferates, and targeting foreigners for extortion has become a money-maker for the cartel. This raises questions of safety for all refugees and migrants waiting at the Mexican border – though Africans may stand out more than their Central American counterparts – and can limit the free circulation of Africans who fear that they will be victimized if they move about the city. At the southern border in Tapachula, while protests are intended to be non-violent, they have at times erupted into physical confrontations with the Mexican authorities.

Specific obstacles for African refugees and migrants 

 While the rapidly shifting policies of the US and Mexico pose challenges to all refugees and migrants seeking to enter through the southern border, Africans can face specific vulnerabilities.

Language issues and lack of social capital

Language can be an issue not just for long-term prospects of assimilation, which can impact on where someone chooses to seek asylum, but also for immediate encounters with Mexican or American authorities which may have implications for the already confusing asylum process. Communication at the US border can prove a challenge for those who don’t speak Spanish, and even more so for those who don’t speak English. African asylum-seekers in Tapachula have raised this issue as well, stating, “at no time have we had translation into our languages,” going on to say that they have been made to sign documents they don’t understand. There have also been reports of Africans arriving at the US border already in possession of a Mexican permanent residence card, making them ineligible to apply for asylum in the US. This has been attributed to the lack of documentation in relevant languages.

Africans are less likely than Central Americans to have family or personal connections in the US. This means that they are likely to spend more time in migrant shelters in the US or Mexico and to have less social capital to draw on as they navigate the asylum system. In many cases they do not have access to consular support, which can pose a particular problem for those whose documents have been lost or stolen in transit. Spending substantial amounts of money to travel extra-continentally, and frequently having lost further resources to pay for the help of smugglers, or to extortion or theft, can leave people in dire financial circumstances. These factors can mean that some Africans may have no options to return to their countries of origin, even if they wish to do so, leaving them effectively stranded.

Long journey, larger information gap?

While changing US policy has caught many people out, the prolonged nature of the journeys of African refugees and migrants – often three to four months – can mean that the policy situation in Central America, Mexico and the US has shifted dramatically during their time in transit. While policies that are both confusing and constantly in flux are a challenge for all refugees and migrants, and it is not clear what information Africans had when they set out on their journey, this greater lag time could mean a bigger disparity between what they are expecting to find in terms of asylum access and the actual reality.

Racism and discrimination

Africans may face racism in Mexico, which can also play into their decision-making when considering lodging an asylum claim there. According to Maria Dolores Paris Pombo, a professor at Mexico’s Colegio de la Frontera Norte, “Mexico has no tradition of integration, not even for Central Americans…. Racism in Mexico is very strong and there is very little support – including for applying for asylum. Most people have to support themselves from within the community.” At the Buen Pastor migrant shelter in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, Africans were initially viewed warily by the other occupants, and while these tensions have subsided with time, one African asylum-seeker describes the process of needing to prove that they are “OK” to every new person who comes to the shelter. As Tangie, a Cameroonian waiting in Tijuana states, “Permit me but there is a lot of racism here. Even in the bus, people take their clothes and cover their noses and it’s not comfortable for them.” Others talk about the discrimination they have faced and how it has led them to conclude that asylum in the US is their only path, as it is not viable to stay in Mexico.

Taking a stand

Both in spite and because of the difficult conditions they face, African asylum-seekers have taken a stand at both the southern and northern Mexican borders.


In Tapachula, (near the Mexico/Guatemala border) some have banded together to form an association, the Asamblea de Migrantes Africanos y Africanas en Tapachula (Assembly of African Migrants in Tapachula). At the end of August they published a communique detailing the challenges and abuses they have faced, demanding respect for their rights and dignity, and laying out specific requests for humanitarian and legal support and onward mobility that would allow them to travel north to try and claim asylum in the US or Canada.

Africans have also played a primary role in protests at the “Estación Migratoria Siglo XXI” – the Mexican National Institute of Migration’s holding facility in Tapachula, where many refugees and migrants are camped.  These began in mid-August and have continued on through September. Echoing the demands of their communique, they are drawing attention to the lack of passage, issues with documentation, and the bad living conditions and mistreatment to which they are subject. While intended to be non-violent, there have been periodic clashes between protestors and Mexican security personnel.

On 28 September refugees and migrants took advantage of the Mexican visit of UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, carrying their protest to the vehicle in which he was traveling. According to reports, he did not meet directly with the protestors. The press release from his visit states the following: “In Tapachula, the High Commissioner also heard of the plight of individuals from various African countries, as well as Haitians and Cubans, many of whom do not wish to apply for asylum in Mexico. For those without international protection needs, solutions are needed in line with the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.”


In Tijuana at the Mexico/US border in July, Cameroonian asylum-seekers led a protest against alleged corruption on the part of Mexican border officials. Subject to the metering which has drastically curtailed the number of entries to the US each day, they had been waiting – in some cases months – to cross into the US to make their asylum claims.  Following a six-day period in which nobody was called to cross from the unofficial waiting list which has governed the process, the Cameroonians alleged that Mexican officials were accepting bribes to allow other refugees and migrants to jump the queue.  NGOs active in the area confirm that such practices are not uncommon. More than 100 of the refugees and migrants sat in the path of Mexican immigration vans on 9 July to block them from carrying out their activities.  Ultimately the protest ended with the negotiation of a verification process to ensure that the list is being honored.

Prospects for the future?

Analyzing the trend in “extracontinental” migration

Multiple media sources have drawn connections between the surge in Africans traveling through the Americas to seek asylum in the US, and a simultaneous decline in migration through the Mediterranean towards Europe as it is deemed more dangerous and difficult due to European policies aimed at deterring migration. It is not clear to what extent this conclusion is based on firsthand conversations with refugees and migrants themselves. Seeking to better understand the motivations for choosing this particular route is an area for useful further enquiry.

Nonetheless, there are clearly parallels to be drawn between the dangers and vulnerabilities facing African refugees and migrants seeking to travel through Central America and Mexico and those attempting a path towards and across the Mediterranean. Recent reporting from Tapachula describes a group of Cameroonians being brought back over to Guatemala and loaded into vans with dark windows, likely putting themselves into the hands of smugglers to try an illicit route through Mexico. As migration is increasingly driven underground – whether in North Africa or in the Americas – there are consequences.

A wider question remains about the future viability of this route. In mid-August Ecuador introduced Ministerial Agreement 0000003, which imposes a visa requirement on 11 new nationalities from Africa and Asia, including Cameroon, the Gambia, Ghana and Guinea. The visa is reportedly intended to have a “preventive character,” to guard against such crimes as trafficking in persons or drugs, migrant smuggling and laundering of assets, among others. At face value this new measure puts in place an additional administrative and financial hurdle, and depending on how it is applied, it could greatly limit access to Ecuador for the affected nationalities.

What next for those who are stranded?  

It remains to be seen how the “asylum ban” will play out, and what impact it will have for African asylum-seekers currently stuck in Mexico. A report from Tapachula following the ban characterized the resolve of the Africans stranded there thusly: “They are undeterred, and the reason for this is simple: the choice to go back to their countries of origin is no choice at all.” In many cases, even should they choose to return to their country of origin, it is not clear they would have the means to do so.

At the same time, the United States has been signing “safe third country” agreements with Central American nations – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – and seeking to do so with Panama. If these agreements come into effect, they will give the US an additional mechanism through which Africans could be returned to Central America, even if the current “asylum ban” is ultimately overturned by the courts.

Mexican policies also remain an obstacle. Following initial protests by the African asylum-seekers at Mexico’s southern border, president Andrés Manuel López Obrador stated, “We will not budge because the recent events in Tapachula aim to make Mexico yield and oblige us to give out certificates so migrants can get into the United States. We cannot do that. It isn’t our job.” According to Carolina Jiménez, the Americas Deputy Director for Research at Amnesty International in relation to African migrants in Mexico, “we see that basically there is no policy in place to deal with their needs, with their specific demands. And we are very concerned that the situation will only get worse.”

While a case brought by Mexican civil society organization Centro de Dignificación Humana seemed as though it might allow for regularization of some of the Africans stuck in Tapachula, that appeared to be a limited remedy, which would likely not permit onward movement to the US border. More recently, protests in Tapachula have escalated, and as of 7 October, Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Migración (National Migration Institute), opened a new office in Tapachula to issue previously approved documents that would allow foreigners to stay in Mexico. However, there is still not full clarity as to whether these documents would allow free transit to the northern border, and some refugees and migrants have said that they only received a regional residence card which would not allow them to leave the state of Chiapas. Director of the Centro de Dignificación Humana, Luis García Villagrán, has warned on the 7th of October that the Africans will begin a mass march to Mexico City in the coming week if they do not receive travel documents.

With their organizing and protests, Africans have taken a proactive approach to improving their situation. However, beyond some support from local civil society and charitable organizations, for months now it has not seemed as though anyone else is taking responsibility. The coming days in mid-October could prove to be a flashpoint, and the stakes are high. According to Salva Lacruz, coordinator of the human rights organization Fray Matías de Córdova, “In the case of (persons from) Honduras and El Salvador, the situation has dramatic overtones. But with these people (from Africa, Cuba, Haiti and South Asia), there are overtones of tragedy and a brutal humanitarian crisis. They have no options.”