Navigating migration in the Horn: a mosaic of changing policies
The region is tough for migrants, IDPs, refugees and asylum seekers. As states wrestle between defining their own immigration policies, evenly applying existing laws and international commitments and responding to populist demands against ‘foreign’ new-comers, those on the move face a mosaic of changing policies. Part of the problem is the identity of those in the mixed migration category.
Mixed migration is not only characterised by people travelling in the same direction by the same means but for different reasons, but also those on the move driven by a mixture of factors. Some factors may qualify them as refugees, others as IDP and others as economic migrants. In the current context many individuals are affected by multiple forces that defy easy identification in terms of their actual status.
For example, imagine the following and entirely plausible scenario: The tipping point for a young woman to flee a village in South Central Somalia was the threat of forced marriage to an Al Shabaab militiaman. But, she and her community were already caught up in the drought and they were all on the verge of starvation as their crops had failed, their livestock were dead and the on-going civil conflict prevented international aid assistance reaching her village. What is she as she flees north to Galkacyo and then into semi-autonomous Puntland? Most would say she is an IDP, although she is effectively a survival migrant, or an environmental migrant as well as fleeing war and its effects. Privately she is also fleeing a social order she objects to (forced marriage). What if she is then persuaded by other IDPs, tired of the deprivation of the Bosaso IDP settlements, to cross the Gulf of Aden. She will become a refugee because all Somalis are given this recognition on arrival but she was safe in Basoso from the central reason for her initial flight – forced marriage and harassment by the Al Shabaab. Imagine, some weeks later, after finding life in the Kharez refugee camp near Aden intolerably crowded and bleak, she leaves (with some other women) to try their employment chances in Saudi Arabia. Smugglers take them north to the border and they slip across the border one night but they are later caught and deported as illegal migrants (economic migrants) back to Mogadishu, where she will become an IDP again.
Unlike Somalis, Ethiopians do not enjoy primae facie asylum-seeking options in countries in the region and have to fight to be accepted as refugees. Consequently their position is even more precarious if they leave Ethiopia to navigate their way through different countries irregularly. Some go west through Sudan and north towards North Africa and others go south into Kenya with the intention of making their way to South Africa. Most, however, travel east through Djibouti or Somaliland and Puntland with the aim of crossing the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden to find work in Yemen or the Gulf States. Over 70,000 Ethiopians made such a journey in 2011.
Immigration policy in the region lacks harmony and consistency, and laws (such as they exist) are subject to sudden changes or arbitrary interpretation. The widespread presence of corrupt and corruptible state officials compounded by weak capacities and resources further compromises the application of any laws. Even where laws seems to be clear, and where migrants and refugees have official papers, they frequently report harassment from police and other authority who have the power to arrest, detain and deport them with impunity. On the ground the state security apparatus often feels free and unfettered to interpret national laws as it pleases. After all, migrants and refugees normally don’t have ready access to lawyers, and civil right agencies, NGOs and even the UNHCR who would want to defend them may only hear of detention or forced deportation after the event.
The region the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat is most concerned with incorporates Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia (south central) Somaliland, Puntland, Yemen and Saudi Arabia (tangentially), and the following description is drawn from the recent experiences of those in mixed migration in these countries. Asylum seekers in the region cannot formally register to apply for refugee status in some parts due to a suspension of registration for 4 years (in one case) or some months in another. In other cases, the registration office may be very difficult and dangerous to get to with insecurity (from criminals, civil conflict, harassment), harsh geography and restrictive policies between points of entry and registration offices creating major obstacles.
Acceptance as refugees may not always be guaranteed to those with primae facie status despite states in the region having signed and ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 OAU Convention. Borders and registration offices may be closed and opened at short notice, more of a reflection of domestic national concerns rather than a reflection of the need of the asylum-seekers in flight. Even IDPs may find themselves unwelcome and barred from entering particular areas from one month to another – once welcomed ‘brothers and sisters’, may be labelled as potentially dangerous and undesirable. Equally the attitude of local people to IDPs, refugees and economic migrants is precarious if not schizophrenic. While being useful as menial labourers and meeting less desirable labour demands in the informal sector, migrants and IDP are castigated for taking local jobs and frequently experience harassment and disdain of a xenophobic nature.
Twists and turns in national policies and laws may also cause migrants to be ordered out of countries in the region at short notice, and many migrants find themselves more criminalised than their smugglers when they are caught as undocumented foreigners. In various countries of the region detention and deportation is a common fate for migrants who may not be given a chance to register as asylum-seekers before they are deported. When detained they are frequently held in poor conditions and many speak of being neglected, mistreated and subject to extortion by their gaolers or other security officials. In locations where smugglers handle large numbers of migrants it is hard to imagine local officials are not entirely aware and directly or indirectly profiting from the activities. And so in an environment where money opens doors and closes eyes, immigration policy and international obligations are applied without consistency or reliability.
The overall result is that migrants, asylum-seekers, refugees and IDPs frequently experience abuse and mistreatment at the hands of communities, criminals and smugglers as they move through the region, but also they cannot be sure of clear and applied policies and laws that uphold their rights or offer consistent treatment according to their status.