Conflict, insecurity & exploitation: Migration in the Horn of Africa


Mazraq camp in the tough mountainous scrublands of Yemen’s north-west border with Saudi Arabia, home to thousands displaced by conflict since 2009 / Annasofie Flamand/IRIN

This blog post represents one of a series marking the publication of a new book, Understanding Migrant Decisions, edited by Belachew Gebrewold and Tendayi Bloom. It includes material presented in Chapter One of the book.

By Belachew Gebrewold

The Horn of Africa is marred by complex and systematic internal and external political, economic and social-cultural factors that result in internal displacement and migration. This blog post shows how studying them can help us to understand migration, both in this region, and more generally. This region has been experiencing political, economic and security crises for decades. Conflict has occurred within states, between states, among proxies, and between armies. The magnitude of violent conflict in the Horn of Africa, taken over time, is greater than in any other African region.

Substantial human insecurities have been driving various segments of the population into regional and international migration. These insecurities result from many factors. For example, the region a a whole has been affected by the collapse of the Somali state and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Meanwhile, recurrent drought is affecting the livelihoods of subsistence farmers as well as nomads, and many suffer from exposure to hunger. Other factors, such as environmental degradation, youth unemployment, rapid growth of slums around big cities, and political repression (especially in Eritrea) also contribute to this situation of human insecurity that is driving people to migrate. The economic infrastructure, livelihoods and job opportunities have been destroyed by conflicts and repression. As such, I see them as the main driving factors of migration within and from this region.

Eritrea has been going through a brutal dictatorship since its formal independence from Ethiopia in 1993, pushing many Eritreans to flee their country and exposing to human trafficking, torture, detention and agony on their way to Europe mainly through Egypt, Libya and Israel. Eritreans attempting to flee their country are being persecuted by the authorities if caught before leaving the country. Those who manage to leave are being enslaved or tortured by smugglers such as those in Egypt on their way to Europe. Similarly, Somalia has been devastated since 1991 by unending civil war, state collapse and radical Islamists cooperating with Al-Qaeda.

There are some important aspects to highlight in the conflict-migration nexus in the Horn of Africa. First, the main push factor for Somalis and Eritreans to leave their countries and risk their lives is the physical insecurity they face at home. Cross-border conflicts in the region have exacerbated the situation. Islamic fundamentalism, various internal conflicts and interstate tensions constitute a conflict system that has posed a great challenge to regional peace. The peoples of those countries have suffered for decades; they are in such a desperate situation that the only option that remains is to leave the country and save their lives and look for opportunities abroad.

Secondly, as a result of the conflict the economic infrastructure is massively destroyed. Investment is rare, job opportunities are out of sight. Therefore, there is no other option but emigration as the economic theories of migration explain.

Thirdly, in such a grim situation the politically and economically induced decision to migrate is a household decision, not only an individual decision as the new economic theory of migration suggests. Those who emigrate need a lot of money by local standards to reach their destination. As individuals, they rarely have enough money to pay for the travel or the human traffickers, forcing them to borrow from their friends and/or sell, in most cases, the property of family members in the hope that they might pay them back in the future.

It is important to stress that their migration decisions are not only about freedom from fear and freedom from want. The changing conditions in the Mediterranean have proliferated human traffickers who know how to exploit the desperate migrants fleeing conflicts and economic misery. This is an entrepreneurship that has emerged due to the fall of the North African dictators and changing conditions in the region, further augmented by an increasing supply of emigrants fleeing appalling situations in their home countries. Addressing the causes and consequences of these tragedies requires a multilevel and concerted action from human rights, humanitarian, economic, political, and security points of view.

Decisions and strategies change and are adapted all the time, depending on the situations the migrants experience on the way to their destinations. This non-linearity and flexibility of decisions is one of the major focuses of the chapter on which this blog post is based. Even those who flee persecution do not always look for just physical safety but also for a place where they can meet their economic needs. The fact that the Horn of Africa is highly affected by conflicts should not necessarily lead us to the conclusion that all migrants from this region are physically persecuted. Most migrants are certainly pushed by the need for physical security but they are also pulled by physical safety and economic prospects in the destination.

It is important to stress that the understanding of the causes and consequences of migration requires a multidisciplinary or a human security approach including human rights, humanitarian, economic, political, ecological, security, health, socio-cultural perspectives.

Belachew Gebrewold is Head of the Department of Social Work and Social Policy, Management Center Innsbruck, Austria.

Read other posts in this series.

Read other blog posts by the co-editor of this series, Tendayi Bloom



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