Abdul worked as a journalist in Somalia before death threats from Al-Shabab militia drove him to leave his native country and head for Mozambique where friends told him he would receive help at Maratane refugee camp in Nampula Province.
The boat he boarded in Mombasa had 110 other passengers – some Somalis with stories similar to his own, and others Ethiopians, either fleeing their own armed conflicts or drought or both – all crammed together in one vessel by a smuggler aiming to maximize profits.
Now Abdul and his fellow passengers are all being detained in the same prison in southern Tanzania. Neither the Mozambican police who arrested them in the northern town of Palma and then violently deported them to the Tanzanian border, nor the immigration officials who found them there – naked and stripped of all their belongings – attempted to determine which of the migrants were asylum-seekers entitled to receive protection and assistance, and which were economic migrants subject to immigration laws.
Countries like Tanzania are starting to realize that their immigration laws are not adequate to deal with the phenomenon of “mixed migration” whereby refugees, asylum-seekers, economic migrants and even victims of human trafficking may be using the same routes, means of transport and smuggling networks to reach a shared destination, but are driven by different motives and have different claims to protection and humanitarian assistance.
“It has become incredibly difficult to distinguish between different streams of migrants,” commented Vincent William, programme manager for the Southern African Migration Programme at the South Africa-based Institute for Democracy in Africa (IDASA). “There’s just a lot of uncertainty about how to manage mixed flows and concerns about not allowing people to abuse the asylum system.”
While much of this movement is originating from the Horn of Africa, the cycle of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has also generated large numbers of refugees as well as those simply seeking better employment and educational opportunities.
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s complex and inter-linked political, social and economic crises of recent years have created the region’s largest cross-border movement with recipient countries struggling to distinguish between those fleeing political persecution, those in search of a livelihood and those driven by a combination of factors.
For many the preferred destination is South Africa, the country that not only offers the best prospects for employment, but also has the region’s most progressive refugee laws. While there are few legal channels for unskilled migrants to enter South Africa, foreign nationals who apply for asylum can remain in the country for as long as it takes to process their claim and during that time they enjoy freedom of movement and the right to work. The result is an asylum system that has been overwhelmed by more applications than any other in the world, according the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Roni Amit, a researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, said South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs has dealt with the backlog of asylum applications mainly by rejecting more people. “The rejection rate is now something like 96 percent,” she told IRIN. “Decisions are very cut and pasted and not really individualized.”
Business booming for smugglers
Under the UN Refugee Convention, refugees are defined as individuals who are forced to remain outside their country of origin because of a well-founded fear of persecution. The Organization of African Unity (now renamed the African Union) definition is slightly broader and includes people compelled to leave their country due to “events seriously disturbing public order”.
Most countries rely on the UN definition, but in countries like Tanzania, immigration officials lack the training or the resources to screen large groups of migrants.
“Every migrant is treated like a criminal so the same treatment is given to the migrants and their smuggler,” said Monica Peruffo of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which recently conducted an assessment of Tanzania’s immigration procedures and facilities.
The job of immigration officials is not made easier by the fact that migrants like Abdul, who have genuine claims to asylum, often delay applying for it until they have reached their chosen destination. Not only does this make them vulnerable to being treated as illegal immigrants in the countries they travel through, it can also harm their chances of being admitted to South Africa. In recent months, South African border officials have started denying entry to asylum-seekers based on the principle that they should have sought asylum in the first safe country they reached. Although no such principle exists in international or domestic law, it has not prevented South Africa from using it as a basis to turn away asylum-seekers from the Horn of Africa.
“If you try to enter through an official border post and you’re denied entry, then your next step is to enter the country illegally and that’s where smugglers come in,” said Witwatersrand University’s Amit.
Sheik Amil of the Somali Community Board, which represents the interests of Somalis in South Africa, confirmed that business was flourishing for smugglers who charge up to US$3,000 to bring Somalis to South Africa from Kenya, where many begin their journeys at the refugee camps near the border.
“They have to get half the money before they leave and the other half when they arrive,” said Amil, adding that migrants who failed to come up with the second instalment were often held hostage by their smugglers until a friend or relative produced the cash.
Others have paid with their lives. An unknown number of Horn migrants have died at sea with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reporting that 11 asylum-seekers drowned off the coast of Mozambique in January 2011 alone, while eight suffocated aboard a closed container truck driving from Maratane to South Africa in February.
Governments “increasingly paranoid”
In September 2010, Tanzania hosted a regional conference on the issue of mixed and irregular migration. Delegates from government and civil society talked about the need to respect the human rights of all migrants, regardless of their legal status and broaden legal migration channels to reduce dependence on smugglers and illegal border crossings. The meeting ended with calls for greater regional cooperation on migration issues, improved national laws and policies to deal with mixed migration, and better border management.
But in the last year, little has been done to implement the conference’s recommendations. While UNHCR and IOM have continued to advocate putting in place more protective measures, such as constructing refugee reception centres at border posts where proper screening of migrants could take place, and replacing forced deportations with voluntary return programmes, governments tend to view the irregular movement of large groups of migrants through their countries as a threat to national security and have responded by detaining and deporting them.
Horn migrants who do make it to refugee camps in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, often use them as a place to rest and regroup before continuing their journey to South Africa, a practice that has heightened concerns about security and abuses of the asylum system.
“Governments have become increasingly paranoid and it does lead to a situation where genuine asylum-seekers are excluded because of the actions of non-asylum seekers,” said IDASA’s William, adding that “worries about foreigners taking jobs” often formed a backdrop to such concerns.
In March of this year, South Africa passed amendments to its immigration legislation that decreased the amount of time asylum-seekers have to make a formal application for asylum after entering the country, and increased the penalties for those found guilty of violating immigration laws.
“They don’t really seem to have a policy perspective that provides a rational justification [for the amendments],” said Witwatersrand University’s Amit. “There’s just a general perception that there are too many people entering the country and taking jobs.”
A Southern African Development Community (SADC) protocol to facilitate the movement of persons has the potential to reduce irregular migration by creating more possibilities for legal migration, at least within the region, but has stalled since being adopted in 2005. For the protocol to come into effect, nine of SADC’s 15 member states have to ratify it but so far only five have done so and no implementation plan has been developed.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) have agreed in principle on similar protocols but William said progress on implementation had been very slow.
“There’s concern about potential security risks, but the overriding concern is probably the economic one. There’s a perception that migrants will flow to countries with the biggest economies.”
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]