For Muslim migrants, religious prejudice compounds horrors of Latin American route

There are no official figures about Muslim migrant flows through the Latin American route, but organizations that assist immigrants in the region report that their numbers have been rising.

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

There are no official figures about Muslim migrant flows through the Latin American route, but organizations that assist immigrants in the region report that their numbers have been rising.

They not only face the usual hardships of the journey north, such as the exploitation by coyotes, but also specific difficulties, including religious prejudice all along the way and obstacles concerning the observance of their faith.

One of the main gateways for Muslim immigrants and refugees in Latin America, Sao Paulo, has been receiving people from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and African countries over the past years.

“I estimate that 20 percent of all people welcomed by us in 2020 were Muslim,” said Fr. Paolo Parise, who heads a Catholic immigrant center called Mission Peace in Brazil’s largest city.

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

“We have also recently welcomed people from Afghanistan,” he added.

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

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

After a few months, most of them try to get into the US, using the traditional routes used by Haitians, Venezuelans and other groups.

But every route abounds with obstacles and disappointments. As of July 2021, 70 percent of asylum requests made in Mexico were concentrated in the border town of Chiapas, which receives daily flights of people expelled from the US under Title 42 legislation.

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

Consider the case of Ghanian-born Ahmed Usman, 34, now a resident in the Mexican city of Tijuana, on the border with the US. Usman lived in Brazil for one year and eight months.

“I worked in a factory in Criciuma (a city in the South of Brazil). After paying my rent and utilities and sending a bit of money to my family, I had no 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 head to the US and began a long trip through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala, until he arrived in Mexico.

“We lacked money. We saw many people getting sick and dying along the trip,” he said, exhaustion and disbelief in his eyes.

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