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African immigrants aren’t just moving north to Europe – they are also headed in the opposite direction to affluent South Africa

Anxiety and outrage in Europe about the numbers of African migrants crossing the Mediterranean has kept attention firmly on the northwards-bound migration routes. But it is not the only direction the traffic flows on the African continent. Arguably its most developed sub-Saharan country, South Africa, is an important destination, especially for east Africans looking to escape conflict and to find a better life. From the Horn of Africa southwards, a network of travel corridors has sprung up, where thousands of vulnerable migrants put themselves in the hands of people-smugglers every year.

Where is the southern route?

Somalia and Ethiopia are the two main origin countries for migrants fleeing conflict and food insecurity on the Horn of Africa. These travellers, mostly moving by road and water, head southwards via Kenya and Tanzania (where many are detained). Further on, they merge with migrants from other under-developed southern African nations – including Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Malawi, Rwanda and Zimbabwe – looking to enter South Africa from either Zimbabwe or Mozambique. The Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS) estimates that 13,000 to 14,000 people make the journey by this route annually through the Great Lakes and Southern African Development Community (SADC) regions; by comparison, at least 80,000 Africans attempted crossing to Europe by one of the Mediterranean routes in 2021.

How long has the southern route been in operation?

Since the mid-1990s, when the downfall of Ethiopia’s Derg military regime unleashed a fresh wave of refugees. Simultaneously in South Africa, the end of the apartheid regime brought with it forward-looking new asylum laws that gave refugees the right to live and work in the country while their applications were processed. In 2008/09, the flow of transcontinental migrants taking the southern route was estimated at 20,000 a year. According to a 2016 Green Paper, a legal loophole resulted in new arrivals allegedly paying fixers to ensure their registration, when the majority do not qualify as refugees. The number of illegal migrants resident in South Africa is hotly contested, because of the surrounding social tensions, but the country counted an estimated 2.2 million foreign-born migrants in 2011, in the wake of hosting a 2010 football World Cup that bolstered economic opportunities for long-distance jobseekers. The influx has reduced in the intervening years, due in part to rising unemployment in South Africa and hostility towards newcomers supposedly taking local jobs.

What kind of dangers do southbound migrants face?

They don’t have the Sahara or an entire sea to cross, but the journey to South Africa still entails plenty of risks. Almost all migrants pay people-smugglers to facilitate their movement – in the period 2009-13, paying an average of $3,372 per person, according to the Mixed Migration Centre, to get from the Horn of Africa to the southernmost part of the continent. 

Travellers face physical dangers relating to the route chosen by the smugglers; lake crossings, for example, are in decline after migrant deaths on Lake Victoria and Lake Malawi. They frequently move in hazardous circumstances, crammed in poorly ventilated container trucks or being forced to take undertake perilous journeys on foot through forests and national parks. As they head further south, migrants are generally in the hands of not one single smuggler, but a chain of informally linked groups that exposes them to a litany of risks along the way, including kidnapping, sexual violence, extortion and exploitation. Many end up paying far more than the fee originally agreed. The economy of certain transit hubs on the route has come to rest on people-smuggling: Moyale, for example, on the Ethiopian-Kenyan border is said to be 60% dependent on smuggling-related income. The RMMS estimates that this illicit trade was worth $47 million a year on the southern route in 2015-2016.

As well as those “helping” them, irregular migrants must also contend with authorities seeking to halt their progress. Many are detained in transit corridor countries, including Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and prosecuted under criminal law as illegal aliens. The judicial process in these countries can be lengthy, resulting in immigrants being held for months in detention centres. According to the RMMS, 68% of migrants interviewed said they had been detained by police during their journey southwards. The IOM estimates that around 2,200 Ethiopians were being held in Tanzania in 2021.

How are migrants treated once they reach South Africa?

There are established Ethiopian (68,000 people, according to 2020 UN figures) and Somalian (58,000) diasporas in South Africa, which often sponsor intra-continental migration and help newcomers find employment opportunities once they arrive. But the country remains a turbulent and sometimes suspicious place for resident foreigners, where migrants are often accused of taking local jobs and committing crimes. Questionable statistics have sometimes contributed to such hostile attitudes: a figure of 5 million immigrants was circulating in mainstream media reports in 2018, far in excess of the 2011 official census figure of 2.2 million. The resulting false perceptions can have serious consequences, like the 2008 anti-immigrant riots in which 60 people died and 100,000 were displaced; this kind of xenophobic violence has flared up more sporadically in the years since. South Africa’s ever-rising unemployment rate, which is now over 30%, only adds to these tensions.

Written by: Phil Hoad


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