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.
After dodging authorities across three continents, immigrants like Sharew receive some respite in Mexico.
Thanks to a legal window for immigrants from conflict zones, citizens from Horn of Africa countries hand themselves over to Mexican officials in return for a 30-day pass that eases the last leg of their months-long odyssey.
The small number of Africans passing through the Tapachula detention center jumped to more than 600 last year, three times as many as in 2007, said Yzar. Before 2004, no Africans are recorded in Mexico’s official statistics.
The Africans tend to be well-dressed, educated and upwardly mobile young adults and stand out from the often impoverished Central Americans who flow through Tapachula by the thousands on their way northward.
Under Mexican law, immigrants who show up from certain places with violent conflicts are given a temporary permit, but most stay only a few days, long enough to get to the U.S.-Mexico border and ask for asylum or try crossing illegally.
After wading through the shallow, muddy river that divides Mexico and Guatemala and spending two-weeks in the Tapachula detention center, Sharew — a student who said he disagreed with the Ethiopian government — and a dozen or so immigrants released at the same time bought plane tickets to northern Mexico.
Business has been so good in Tapachula that one local travel agent printed T-shirts with “Mexico + Africa” in a big red heart.
With the daunting illegal crossing of the U.S.-Mexico border still to come, most of the migrants said the worst was already behind them.
International human smuggling rings use local traffickers in each country to shuttle the migrants across borders from Africa to Latin America using fake documents, border security blind spots and corrupt officials.
The migrants are fleeing Somalia, wracked by factional violence since a dictatorship collapsed in 1991, mandatory military service in Eritrea, or protests in Ethiopia after post-election violence killed close to 200 people in 2005.
They sometimes have to flee across African borders on foot, walking long distances where they risk meeting wild animals, said Yzar.
Many arrive from Africa by boat or plane to Brazil or Ecuador, where visa restrictions are lax, and then they move overland thousands of miles, often robbed or abandoned by handlers along the way. One Ghanaian-led ring in Mexico stuffed people in bus luggage compartments for 12 hours at a time.
Not all countries have laws like Mexico and in many places immigrants can languish in jails for months.
Mohamed Ahmed Hassen, 31, a truck driver in Mogadishu, sold his land to leave Somalia in July 2008 and paid $1,500 to be shipped as a stowaway on a boat from South Africa to Brazil.
From there he traveled up the Amazon river to Colombia where he was put on a tiny, unseaworthy vessel to Panama.
“It was too small and the water was coming in over the sides. That time was dangerous, I feared for my life, I was thinking I was dying,” Hassen said, after being caught in Guatemala.
Guatemalan police found Hassen, four other Somalis and three Nepalese, hidden in the back of a truck by chance when they pulled the driver over for being drunk.
Almost all the migrants are heading to the United States and Canada but Hassen said he would stay in Guatemala and look for work if the country would allow it. Immigrants will rarely settle in Latin American countries like Costa Rica or Panama where migrants from Guatemala are finding work.
Once in Mexico, most try to leave as quickly as possible, but since they usually arrive in Tapachula with no documents, it is hard to track where they end up, worrying U.S. officials.
The goal is to settle with relatives and friends already living in the Unites States, either by trying to obtain legal documents or living without them below the radar.
Sharew said in an e-mail that some of the Africans he traveled with were detained yet again in the United States while immigration officials decided either to grant them asylum or send them halfway around the world back home.
Additional reporting by Sarah Grainger in Guatemala City; editing by Philip Barbara