Summary of key findings Despite specific conditions and characteristics particular to the southern route, this paper’s findings are generally consistent with the dynamics of migrant smuggling along all routes out of the Horn of Africa.
Using a combination of primary and secondary sources, as well as new data from the RMMS Mixed Migration Monitoring Mechanism Initiative (4Mi), the paper finds that migrant smuggling along the southern route continues to thrive and exposes migrants in mixed flows to high levels of abuse and risk.2
As an update to the International Organization of Migration’s seminal 2009 study3 on migrant smuggling along the southern route, it shows that the following trends and characteristics define the dynamic:
Irregular movement between the Horn of Africa and southern Africa continues to be possible and arguably there are more routes available to smugglers and migrants than in 2008/9.
The dynamic is dominated by smuggling as the primary criminal enterprise. Trafficking is uncommon although migrants report cases of kidnapping, extortion and exploitation, both labour and sexual. Nevertheless, as the role of the smuggler is increasingly aligned with criminal activities, the definitional difference between smuggling and trafficking is being tested and, in some cases, may appear academic.
Consistent with the findings of the 2009 study, Ethiopians make up the majority of those being smuggled into South Africa from the Horn. Interviews with migrants and migration experts in 2015 suggested 80 percent of migrants from the Horn of Africa were Ethiopian and 20 percent Somali, with almost no evidence of flows from Eritrea.
The flows continue to be complex with economic migrants travelling alongside refugees. Most refugees are Somalis although most Ethiopians also apply for asylum on arrival.
Compiling accurate estimates of how many people are on the move remains difficult. Unlike in 2008/9, when a strategic bottleneck in the flow of migrants into the Republic of South Africa (RSA) allowed researchers to credibly estimate numbers, no such bottlenecks existed in 2015/16. However critical assessment of Ethiopian asylum applications in South Africa provides some indication of the numbers making the journey.
As explained more fully below, the writers conclude that present flows into South Africa from the Horn of Africa are lower than in 2008/9. At that time, it was estimated that 17,000–20,000 Somalis and Ethiopians entered South Africa irregularly every year. This paper estimates the current rate at 13,400–14,050 per year.
However, the number of people leaving the Horn via the southern route may be higher, probably 14,750– 16,850.
The multiple reasons for this decline may include: Europe’s greater attraction as a destination and perceptions of how easy it was to reach the continent from 2013–2016; the fact that Ethiopians were able to masquerade as Eritrean at a time when Eritreans were achieving very high acceptance rates as refugees in Europe; continued and vicious ‘Afrophobic’ attacks against migrants, and particularly Somalis engaged in business, in South Africa; policy changes that have made it harder for asylum seekers to achieve refugee status in RSA; and growing intolerance towards foreigners both within the administration and among the general public.
The 2009 study highlighted protection risks faced by migrants, not only along the southern route but also within South Africa. Evidence suggests that significant human rights violations take place along the way and once within South Africa, migrants and refugees also commonly face violence and prejudice, discrimination and abuse.
It appears that migrant smuggling along the southern route has become more violent and exploitative with kidnapping or holding for ransom of smuggled people by smugglers becoming more common. In IOM’s 2009 study, no migrants reported being held for ransom, except by police and prison officials in certain cases. Now kidnapping and ransom demands seem to have become more prevalent and almost normalised, as is the case on the eastern route towards Yemen and Saudi Arabia. While there is still less associated violence on the southern route, it is clear that within the smuggling economy migrants are viewed as commodities.
There is some evidence that the smuggling economy has begun to attract more organised criminals.
Smugglers sometimes enjoy impunity from prosecution despite national laws against smuggling and trafficking in many of the countries in which they operate. Government and security officials have been said to be involved, directly and indirectly, in the trade.
With the average cost of the trip from the Horn of Africa to South Africa increasing by almost 69 percent from 2009–2016, the smuggling economy remains extremely lucrative for those involved, with high profits matched by low risks. Collusion and corruption, involving state officials, are essential lubricants of the smuggling machine. For migrants, the risk of failure is low with most reaching South Africa despite abuses by smugglers or officials, and other risks.
With earnings rising faster than inflation, the profits from this illicit industry appear to be higher in 2016 than in 2008/9, despite the decline in the number of migrants. In 2008/9, the illicit migrant smuggling economy was estimated to be worth at least USD 40 million per year. For 2015/16, RMMS estimates it was worth up to USD 47 million per annum. These estimates are based on fees paid to smugglers but the rising prevalence of ransom demands means actual earnings are likely much higher.