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Op-Ed: Here is how International Cooperation can Make Migration Safer

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By Julia Hartlieb and Angelo Di Giorgi

Even during the current COVID-19 pandemic, migration movements within and from the East and Horn of Africa have not stopped - they simply slowed. Furthermore, return journeys have become more perilous, highlighting the need for closer collaboration among countries to make migration safer.

An example of cooperation on return and reintegration assistance provided to migrants is a very active programme resulting from a three-way partnership between the European Union (EU), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and 26 African countries. The EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration is aimed at rescuing stranded migrants and facilitating their safe return to their communities of origin, where they may also be supported with needs-based assistance to rebuild their lives.

In the Horn of Africa, the EU-IOM Joint Initiative is now in its fifth year, and is even more relevant as COVID-19 movement restrictions have heightened the risks faced by migrants in the region. To date, thousands of migrants in transit and destination countries have received life-saving assistance, enabling them to return safely and with dignity to their countries of origin.

Between January and September 2021 IOM's Missing Migrants Project recorded 112 migrant deaths in the East and Horn of Africa countries, with another 30 Ethiopian migrants perishing in a shipwreck off the coast of Yemen in July.

Due to COVID-19, migrants have also faced increasing risk of experiencing xenophobia, exploitation, and detention.

The pandemic has deflected irregular migrants to unmonitored crossing points, where cases of trafficking or kidnapping are even more frequent. At the same time, higher risks have translated into higher fees charged by human smugglers.

COVID-19 lockdowns in destination and transit countries have resulted in many migrants being unable to secure short-term jobs, to sustain themselves or to finance onward movements. Access to health screening and treatment has also been scarce, in particular for migrants who often lack access to basic services in host communities.

In early 2020, when the first Coronavirus cases were registered in the East and Horn of Africa, the region had a large concentration of displaced people. As of the end of January 2021, 6.5m were internally displaced in addition to an estimated 3.6m refugees and asylum seekers.

Although there is a significant number of intra-regional movements in the East and Horn of Africa, cross-regional migration flows are equally significant with tens of thousands of migrants moving abroad each year. Most of the migrants leave the region looking for unskilled work, mainly as domestic helpers and labourers. Many other movements are forced, due to conflict, and natural phenomena provoked by climate change, such as frequent droughts and floods.

There are three major international migratory routes from the Horn of Africa: the Eastern Route through Yemen, towards the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula (in particular Saudi Arabia); the Northern Route, through Sudan towards North Africa and Europe; and the Southern Route to South Africa.

It is the Eastern Route, via either Bosaso in Somalia or Obock in Djibouti, that usually accounts for the largest number of irregular movements each year in the region. In 2020, however, movements along this route only accounted for 35% of all movements tracked in the region, due to the travel restrictions introduced to curb COVID-19 pandemic. Ethiopian labour migrants, including women and children, are the vast majority of those who use this route (97% and 98% in 2019 and 2020, respectively).

Thus, many migrants from the East and Horn of Africa continue to bear the risks of irregular migration, including life-threatening dangers such as drowning at sea, dehydration, starvation, and diseases, as migrants often travel through the desert on foot, without adequate assistance.

What the impact of COVID-19 has shown is the need for heightened regional and international cooperation in governing migration, in order to make it safer. Such cooperation requires countries to include migrants, the displaced and other populations on the move in national vaccination plans – a campaign that IOM is already conducting.

The EU-IOM Joint Initiative could not have been more relevant at this time, although it traces its roots to 2016. What set the ball rolling was the 2015 Valletta Summit on migration, convened to address the urgent need to protect and save migrants’ lives, together with strengthening migration governance along the Central Mediterranean migration route.

The programme was subsequently expanded geographically, and in scale. However, it retained the original focus of providing stranded migrants with the option to return to their communities of origin where they may also be provided with needs-based support to rebuild their lives.

In the Horn of Africa, assistance totaling EUR 56.7 million has been funded by the European Union to date, with over 7,700 migrants in the region having received return support. More than 11,500 returnees started the reintegration process to re-establish their lives in Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, as well as in Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda.

The funding has also gone into capacity building for government and other partners; migration data collection and analysis to support evidence-based programming; information and awareness raising.

Working with partners, the programme promotes an integrated reintegration approach that supports both migrants and their communities of return, has the potential to complement local development, and aims to mitigate some of the drivers of irregular migration. This translates into the funding of 42 community projects in the Horn of Africa, with an overall target population of 227,000.

The EU-IOM Joint Initiative also funds a network of one-stop centres, located at key points along the major migration routes. Known as ‘Migration Response Centres’, they provide vulnerable and stranded migrants with life-saving support, including shelter, food, personal hygiene products, in addition to health and psychosocial assistance.

Across this wide scope, the programme has seconded a migration specialist to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), along with three other experts to the African Union. In February 2021, an agreement was signed with IGAD to also mobilise more political commitment to expand cross-border child protection responses in the region.

What the EU-IOM Joint Initiative has shown is that it is possible to pool forces to make migration safer. This is particularly relevant as the region is likely to continue experiencing increasing international movements of people due to negative dynamics in labour markets, persistent insecurity and conflict, harsh climatic conditions and public heath emergencies, in addition to other socioeconomic drivers and seasonal factors.

  • Ms Hartlieb is Senior Coordinator of the EU-IOM Joint Initiative in the Horn of Africa
  • Mr Di Giorgi is Programme Officer at the EU Delegation to Ethiopia for the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa