Increasing numbers of Ethiopians and Somalis fleeing war, drought and poverty in their home countries face arrest, deportation and detention as they try to make their way to the south of the continent.
For most the goal is South Africa - the only country in the region where refugees and asylum-seekers have freedom of movement and the right to work rather than being confined to camps. But as the number of migrants from the Horn of Africa seeking asylum in South Africa has reached unprecedented levels, border authorities have started refusing them entry.
“There’s a new unofficial policy since the beginning of May where Somali and Ethiopian nationals are being informed they’ll not be given asylum by the South African government,” said Abdul Hakim, chairperson of the Somali Community Board, a local organization representing the interests of Somalis.
Hakim said that before the crackdown, about 1,500 Somalis were entering South Africa every month. With official borders closed to them, many were now entering the country illegally and then making their way to refugee reception centres to apply for asylum.
Deputy Director-General of South Africa's Department of Home Affairs Jackie McKay denied there had been any change of policy but Kaajal Ramjathan-Koogh, who heads the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, said her organization had also observed “a definite shift away from accepting large numbers of refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia”.
“From a Home Affairs point of view… they’ve been seeing very large numbers arriving in the last two months and they’re not willing to accept the entire continent’s refugee burden,” she told IRIN.
An issue brief by Roni Amit of the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of Witwatersrand published in June suggests that the Home Affairs Department has been denying entry to asylum-seekers based on the principle that they should have sought asylum in the first safe country they reached. Amit points out that no such principle exists in international or domestic law.
"By denying entry to asylum-seekers based on the mere fact of their transit through another country, South Africa is contravening its obligations under international law," Amit writes. "This practice increases the risk that individuals will be returned to the life-threatening situations from which they fled."
South Africa’s unofficial shift in policy has had a knock-on effect in neighbouring countries which had previously had a fairly tolerant attitude to the movement of migrants through their countries en route to South Africa.
Zimbabwe's state-run newspaper, The Herald, reported in July that immigration officers manning the country's northern borders had been instructed not to admit illegal immigrants, especially those from Somalia and Ethiopia, who "pretend as if they want to seek refugee status" only to disappear into neighbouring countries, particularly South Africa.
Marcellin Hepie, country representative for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Zimbabwe, said the country had been receiving high numbers of migrants from the Horn of Africa in recent months with 646 Somalis and Ethiopians picked up and transported to Tongorara refugee camp in Manicaland Province since mid-May.
"Before their [asylum-seeker] cases are adjudicated some of them vanish, presumably for South Africa. Normally they’ll wait around long enough to receive their food and non-food items and then off they go," he told IRIN. "It is eroding the asylum procedure here and it could eventually backfire."
He also noted that since mid-May crossing into South Africa for this group of migrants, "has not been as smooth as it used to be".
"Many have been sent back to Zimbabwe and detained at Beitbridge [border post]. No one has shared any official change of policy from South Africa, but in practice there have been changes," he said.
According to Natalia Perez of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in the first quarter of 2011, 7,200 asylum-seekers registered at the Beitbridge border post as they crossed into South Africa. Perez said Zimbabwe had now closed its borders to "any migrant or asylum-seeker who cannot produce an ID”.
"Now they're being pushed backwards," she told IRIN.
Dilemma for governments
The relatively recent phenomenon of mixed migration (which IOM defines as "complex migratory population movements that include refugees, asylum-seekers, economic migrants and other migrants") from the Horn of Africa to the southern part of the continent presents a dilemma for governments in the region that are bound by international refugee laws but unwilling to bear the economic and security costs of allowing large numbers of undocumented migrants to travel through their countries.
The issue was the subject of a regional conference in Dar es Salaam in September 2010 where a number of recommendations were proposed for dealing with the influx such as greater regional cooperation, improved national policies and better collection of data on refugees and migrants. However, according to Katherine Harris, a regional protection officer with UNHCR, progress since the conference has been "slow going", with attention and resources mainly focused on the current crisis in the Horn of Africa.
"The biggest thing is that we really need to come up with a regional approach to this issue," she told IRIN.
Until recently, Mozambique was another popular transit country for Horn of Africa migrants intent on reaching South Africa. Since 2010, a steady stream of Ethiopians and Somalis have been arriving in the country, most of them having used the services of smugglers to take them by boat to the coastal town of Palma, just across the border with Tanzania. By the beginning of 2011, the numbers had increased significantly and the Mozambican authorities started restricting the movements of asylum-seekers outside of the country's one refugee camp in Nampula Province.
Starting in May, however, the number of asylum-seekers reaching the camp abruptly decreased as immigration officers started intercepting them and deporting them to Tanzania where 833 Ethiopians and Somalis, 45 of them children, are now being detained in Mtwara prison in the southeast of the country.
"We’re trying to find out why this is happening, and hoping to resolve the impasse in a way that will allow new arrivals to at least be screened," said Carlos Zaccagnini, UNHCR's country representative in Mozambique, who pointed out that the UN Convention on Refugees prohibits countries from rejecting, deporting or detaining asylum-seekers.
Responding to questions from the BBC, Mozambique's interior minister said that some of the migrants were pretending to be refugees but had criminal intentions and were being turned away to guarantee the country's security.
Lin Mei Li, a protection officer with UNHCR in Tanzania, said her office had been pushing the Tanzanian authorities to allow them to interview the detainees at Mtwara prison to determine which of them have genuine asylum-seeker claims. "Living conditions in the prison are not good, it’s over-crowded and there are not enough medicines," she told IRIN. "We’re really worried about them."
UNHCR is also trying to persuade the Tanzanian government to establish a reception centre that would provide humanitarian assistance to asylum-seekers rather than imprisoning them. The Zimbabwean government has asked IOM to set up something similar on its northern border with Mozambique. But Abdul Hakim of the Somali Community Board said that Somali asylum-seekers were still being imprisoned in Botswana, Mozambique and Malawi.
"They’re not taken to a court, they just stay in prison and they don’t know for how long. Because they entered the country illegally, they’re treated as illegal immigrants."