African immigrants risk lives on epic trek to U.S.

Tue Apr 28, 2009 8:48pm EDT
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By Mica Rosenberg

TAPACHULA, Mexico (Reuters) - Jailed repeatedly for his political views, Ethiopian immigrant Sharew paid smugglers around $10,000 to move him through a dozen countries and leave him a year later in the grubby southern Mexican city of Tapachula.

Once on Mexico's southern border, which has grown into a major stepping-stone for hundreds of migrants fleeing conflicts in the Horn of Africa, he was still 2,000 miles away from his destination: the United States.

The immigrants, mainly from Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea, are increasingly following a new, epic route down the continent to South Africa, across the Atlantic by boat or plane and then a trek overland though South and Central America.

"It is an enormous voyage. They've told us that along the way some lose their lives in Africa because they are attacked, sometimes even by lions," said Jorge Yzar, head of Tapachula's detention center, where dozens of immigrants from all over the world sleep in dormitories before being deported or let go.

Risking jail or even death, their lengthy trip by plane boat, truck, bus and foot can cost thousands of dollars -- some pay as much as $20,000 -- often borrowed from relatives.

While experts say illegal immigration by Latin Americans has fallen as the economic crisis bites and jobs dry up in the United States, East Africans are coming in increasing numbers to try to find a better life.

African immigrants have traditionally sought jobs in European countries near the Mediterranean Sea like Spain, Italy and France but governments have tried to discourage the inflow by offering financial incentives for migrants to return home.

"After a journey like this you realize there is no safe haven anywhere in the world. Only the strong survive it," Sharew, 29, said sipping a warm soda in a Tapachula diner.   Continued...

<p>African immigrants try to catch candy thrown from a Carnavale parade in Tapachula February 28, 2009. REUTERS/Daniel LeClair</p>