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Drought: A contributing or limiting factor in migration?

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May 18, 2017. Written by: Olivia Akumu and Bram Frouws / RMMS

The current drought situation in the Horn of Africa is worryingly familiar, and according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the situation is deteriorating faster than expected. Severely erratic and below average rainfall has resulted in widespread food insecurity and malnutrition, deteriorating livestock conditions, and the mass movement of populations within and across borders.

Famine has officially been declared in South Sudan, compounding an already desperate situation that has led to the internal displacement of 1.9 million South Sudanese, and the cross-border displacement of more than 1.8 million more across the region. In Somalia, the latest figures indicate that nearly 700,000 people have been internally displaced since November 2016, while at least 2,000 Somalis have crossed into Kenya in recent months, and a further 4,000 have entered Ethiopia since the beginning of 2017, all in search of humanitarian assistance. In Eritrea, ravaging drought conditions are reported to be affecting half of the entire country, and reports from IOM and UNHCR suggest that more than 4,500 Eritrean refugees have crossed into Ethiopia since the beginning of 2017, with a reported 3,490 having crossed in March alone.

A new report published by the World Food Programme (WFP) concludes that food insecurity, along with income inequality, is a major ‘push’ factor driving international migration. While recent trends in the region appear to support the position that drought conditions have increased population movements, this article suggests that the impacts of the drought situation are limited to forced displacement within countries (internal displacement) and within the region only, with a completely opposite result on movements further afield, resulting in reduced migration along traditional migration routes out of the region.

Declining international migration movements

The potential effects of below average rainfall in the Horn of Africa first started to draw attention in late 2016. Forecasts by the Famine and Early Warning Network (FEWSNET) in November and December warned about deteriorating conditions, which began to correspond with shifting patterns of movement from the region.

On the eastward route from the Horn of Africa towards Yemen, 32,834 Ethiopian and Somali migrants and asylum seekers arrived in Yemen between November 2016 and April 2017. 46% less than arrivals in the same period in the preceding year (November 2015 – April 2016), and 50% less than arrivals in the preceding 6 months (May 2016 – October 2016). The comparative decline in this period is especially remarkable given that 2016 was a record year for migrant arrivals in Yemen, and arrivals in the final quarter and first quarter of any given year are typically higher than other periods of the year.