The struggle of mobility: organising high-risk migration from the Horn of Africa

Mogadishu, Somalia (openDemocracy) – The current migration and refugee crisis across the Euro-African borderlands, particularly as represented via images of human suffering and loss of life, has attracted media, public and academic attention. Yet the language of humanitarianism continues to construct migrants as passive and disposable victims. Academic discourses regarding the political and security implications of border regimes often portray irregular migration practices – including the actions of human smugglers – as taking place in a vacuum. They focus primarily on the political implications of systems that shape extralegal mobility and border crossings as risky. This approach has ignored the complex and dynamic relationships that emerge between migrants and smugglers in the migration process.

The media, far right populist politicians, and others portray smugglers as organised criminal gangs primarily interested in the economic or sexual exploitation of powerless migrants. Smugglers are blamed for kidnapping and torture; for ransom, rape, robbery and abandonment, particularly involving migrants from the Horn of Africa; and for migrant deaths in the desert.

However, migration testimonies of Ethiopians and Eritreans collected over the last four years in Africa and Europe indicate that actors other than smugglers are behind the abuse and exploitation of migrants en route. These include armed criminal gangs, religious fundamentalists (including the African wing of Islamic State), desert tribes, and others who engage in conflict with smugglers. In the Sahara, these parties kidnap migrants and refugees in order to hold them for ransom or to exploit them for sex or labour.

Severe acts of violence against migrants and refugees are also committed by the state. The Eritrean, Sudanese, Egyptian, and Libyan governments, sometimes in collaboration with European border regimes, intercept, detain, and deport or imprison migrants and refugees in remote camps. There migrants encounter confinement, torture and rape by corrupt officers and prison guards. Many migrants explained that when border guards on the Sudanese-Libyan or Chad-Libyan borders intercepted them, they were transported in containers to remote areas of the Saharan desert.

Faced with such obstacles, migrants in this condition may then reach out to Ethiopian and Eritrean smugglers – often migrants themselves who have settled in transition nodes along the routes in Sudan and in Libya – for rescue. Smugglers, through their contacts in the desert, arrange transport and other facilities to ‘release’ migrants and refugees’ detained in remote deserts. Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants and refugees have, in fact, coined terms for the various types of smuggler they encounter during the journey: leqamiwoch (lit. recruiters or collectors), ashagariwoch (lit. transporters), pilots (knowledgeable guides), kezaignoch (lit. those hide migrants from border guards en route) andteqebayoch (lit. receivers in destination), which signifies the many supportive roles that human smugglers can take on for those in need.

Depictions on how migrants and refugees from the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia and Eritrea) exit their homelands often include narrow portrayals of violence, victimisation, and suffering, glossing over the processes of how those in transit travel across the land and settle in European destinations. Based on work collected in the UK, Sweden, Italy, Sudan and Ethiopia, my work reflects on the interactions among diasporic transit actors (migrants, their families, co-ethnics and co-nationals in origin, transit and diasporic spaces) and how they engage in and organise movement. This has entailed looking at cross border social and smuggling networks, the emergence of migration routes, and the settlement of former migrants either en route or at permanent locations in Sweden or other richer and stable countries in Europe. I argue that these networks help to perpetuate extralegal mobility in spite of Europe’s creation and fortification of internal and external borders.

My work explores how migrants and refugees generate resources and organise high risk journeys (over vast deserts and the high seas) as well as across multiple transit spaces and destination communities. Smugglers play multiple roles in different stages of the process, including: exit from the homelands, transit across Africa, and secondary mobility after Italy until migrants arrive at Sweden. They arrange particular transport services to cross borders, deserts, and seas; informal money transfer systems; travel routes with knowledgeable guides; and appropriate hiding spaces.

Image Source: rjones0856, Flickr, Creative Commons Mogadishu feeding center

Image Source: rjones0856, Flickr, Creative Commons
Mogadishu feeding center

Former migrants settled along the route and in destination locations provide necessary information for prospective migrants about routes; smugglers; timing; how to behave during interactions with smugglers; how to hide money; which clothes, medicine and food to carry; shelter and temporary jobs in transit lands. Through the formation of what I refer to as a community of mobility, smugglers and migrants try to minimise the risks of kidnapping, robbery, rape, interception, detention, deportation, imprisonment, injury, and death.

Ethnographic data show the facilitation of irregular transit creates, feeds and sustains a collective system of migratory knowledge that links migrants from the Horn of Africa to transit spaces and destinations in ways that improve the likelihood of a successful journey. As such, I would suggest that the collective experience in irregular migrations constitutes a diasporic system of knowledge that challenges immobility regimes and impediments to transit.

High-risk border crossings and long journeys must be situated in the local and global context of social and political economy. Young people from the Horn of Africa are dissatisfied by the growing economic inequalities and long years of repressive political conditions. At the same time, they are lured by diasporic remittances or “returnees’ prosperity” and driven by social and familial expectations. Accordingly, large numbers of young people not only dream of international migration but are also determined to make high-risk departures across deserts and seas.

Current Eritrean refugee crises must furthermore be put in historical context. Fearing external domination and internal ethnic and religious extremism, as well as coping with an anxious relationship with Ethiopia, the Eritrean regime has pursued desperate and dictatorial post-war nation building projects. The has ensured the isolation of Eritrea from the international community, which in turn has further aggravated the economic conditions and created a repressive political atmosphere for young men and women. As such, the regime has not just inadvertently caused refugee flights but has also designed strategies to sustain them – primarily to benefit from the remittances sent back by its exiled community. Within this context high-risk emigration has become part of the societal norm as well as personal and family hopes to survive and thrive in such uncertain environment.

This report prepared by TEKALIGN AYALEW MENGISTE for openDemocracy.