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From Ethiopia to South Africa: The human cost of a neglected migration route 

‘You have no phone, no control, and that’s when abuse can start.’

This is a composite image. On the left we see a map of Africa from Ethiopia to South Africa and on the right we see a photo of migrants at a safehouse in Dzaleka refugee camp, Malawi. Composite image: Map by physicalmap.org/Wikimedia Commons and photo supplied to TNH.
Migrants in a safehouse in Dzaleka refugee camp, Malawi. They had not paid an instalment to the smugglers so were left behind when the main group travelled on.

Sometime in October last year, a truck stopped on a quiet road in northern Malawi’s Mtangatanga forest and offloaded 29 bodies. They had suffocated in the back of the vehicle and were hastily buried in shallow graves. The dead were Ethiopian men, aged between 25 and 40 – victims of a lucrative transnational smuggling network that funnels tens of thousands of people into southern Africa each year, with little regard for their safety.

The deceased, still to be identified, had probably come from the densely populated rural Hosaina and Durame zones of southern Ethiopia. They had entrusted their lives to an intricate – often abusive – system of people transporters. Their goal had simply been to reach South Africa, find work, and change the economic fortunes of their families.

There have been several other incidents of mass fatalities on the various routes smugglers use to push people south, but most are far less visible. What makes the Mtangatanga case unusual is the sheer number of dead. What is also noteworthy is that among the eight people in court on manslaughter and people trafficking charges is the alleged owner of the truck: the stepson of a former president of Malawi.

The southern route to South Africa is one of three major migration corridors transporting people out of the Horn of Africa. But unlike the two better-known routes – going east to the Gulf states, or north to Europe – it is both sketchily documented and poorly understood. As a result, the dynamics and casualties of this covert business tend to be overlooked by migration experts, aid agencies, and government authorities.

“This may stem from the fact that travel along the southern route encompasses so-called ‘South-South’ movements, which may be less of a priority for donor governments of the ‘Global North’,” said Ayla Bonfiglio of the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC), a policy think tank. “As a result it’s challenging to build support for comprehensive data and research along this route.”

Over the last few months, a team of reporters from The New Humanitarian, based in Kenya, Malawi, and South Africa – key hubs of the southern route – have been on the ground talking to former smugglers, would-be migrants, and migrant researchers. The emerging picture is of a booming organised crime business that is having a growing political and economic impact in countries along the corridor’s path.

It’s difficult to gauge how many use the route to arrive in South Africa – one of the continent’s most sophisticated economies. The volume of people travelling along it is believed to be larger than those taking the northern route to Europe, but much less than those heading from the Horn of Africa to the Gulf states.

  • Smuggling/trafficking – what’s the difference?

    We often use the terms interchangeably, but there are important differences. Consent is the key issue: Migrants agree to being smuggled, while a trafficked person has been coerced.


    Smuggling involves transporting people illegally across an international border. Once the destination is reached, the business arrangement is normally concluded. Traffickers on the other hand can continue to exploit – through violence, fraud, or intimidation, taking advantage of a person’s vulnerability.


    Along transport corridors like the southern route, there can be a mix of both smuggling and trafficking during the course of the journey.

Many, perhaps most, of the undocumented Ethiopians and Somalis that make it to South Africa apply for asylum. In the first six months of this year, just over 23,000 Ethiopians and 2,600 Somalis sought asylum in South Africa, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. This suggests the numbers of people travelling the southern route annually could be approaching 50,000.

The hazards of the journey are considerable. To avoid detection, travellers can be packed in airless fuel tankers and shipping containers, or marched for days on detours through forests and national parks. There is also a precarious sea route from Kenya and Somalia to Mozambique, and on to South Africa by road.

There is little food along the way, and those who fall sick are usually abandoned. There is also an ever-present threat of violence or extortion – typically a sudden demand for more money – as well as the danger of being kidnapped by criminal gangs or rival smuggling networks. 

That smugglers commonly refer to migrants as “goods”, underlines just how dehumanising the business is.

Heading south

With the spike in jihadist threats across eastern and southern Africa, borders have become more securitised and travel documents harder to obtain. That has encouraged clandestine migration, and the expansion of the lucrative smuggling economy. Verified migrant deaths in Africa are among the highest in the world – a reflection of the inherent dangers of irregular movement.

The road trip south can take up to six months to complete – and is expensive. It costs an average of roughly $4,800 per person, compared to $700 to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, according to the UN’s migration agency, IOM. But these are not fixed rates. Generally, the more money paid, the faster the travel and the greater insulation against the risks. 

Those making the journeys are overwhelmingly young men from southern Ethiopia and urban Somalia seeking to escape the lack of opportunities at home. The goal is to find work, typically in the small informal corner shops known as “spazas” – a retail niche in which Ethiopian and Somali immigrants excel. They not only employ the new arrivals, but, after a few years of work, the community will typically help these young men set up their own businesses.

A migrant’s story: ‘I want to change my life’

Shariff* doesn’t know how, or quite when, but his goal is to get out of Kenya and reach South Africa – a journey he believes will change his future for the better.

He has been a refugee for most of his life in the mainly Somali refugee camp of Dadaab, in Kenya’s arid northeast, living in poverty, on a basic ration, with no realistic hope of resettlement abroad. For a young man of 25 with ambition, it has been a deeply frustrating existence.

This year – as part of a new government integrationist refugee policy – he applied for a Kenyan ID, renounced his refugee status, and travelled to Nairobi. He now works in a shop for 14 hours a day, earning less than $100 a month, living with a cousin and their family to save on rent.

For Shariff, it’s still a dead end. “How do you plan your future, how do you marry, how do you develop your life [when you earn so little]?” he asked The New Humanitarian. “I’m 25. My parents are waiting for me to do something with my life.”

He had a friend from Dadaab who took the smuggling route to South Africa and told him to find the money and come. Shariff studied IT in Dadaab on a three-year course and is ready to work hard. “I think in South Africa I can build a future,” he said.

Finding an agent to help organise the travel is not hard, many are based in Eastleigh, a Somali-dominated business suburb: “You just ask, ‘Where is the agent for travelling to South Africa?”

Shariff is aware of the risks – both of the journey and the dangers of violent crime in South Africa – but wants to take his chances. “We know people die there, but I want to change my life,” he said.

The travel is voluntary – supported and sponsored by the young men’s families, or by their connections in South Africa. Over the last two decades, the emigration trail has become a tradition in the Hosaina and Durame areas of Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR), which borders Kenya – the first in a chain of countries along the southern route.

“There’s no family [in Hosaina] that doesn’t have a person here,” said Johannes Habib, chair of the Ethiopian business community in South Africa. “They are escaping poverty, and we Ethiopians work hard.” He reckons there are tens of thousands of Ethiopian-owned spaza shops in South Africa.

This is a map from the East and Horn of Africa showing migration routes towards the south. Lines showing the flow of migration connect cities from Ethiopia to South Africa.

The journey’s huge cost is counted as an investment by families. The odyssey begins with a visit to a local agent of one of the smuggling networks, and the subsequent sale of land and livestock – or taking out of a loan – to fund a son's trip. Payments are usually staggered, partly as leverage to try and ensure the travel to South Africa is completed, Ethiopian migration researcher Yordanos Estifanos told The New Humanitarian.

The benefits are tangible and publicly visible in towns in the SNNPR, Estifanos said. Remittances pay for the new houses, the farm equipment, the school fees, and lavish weddings – upward mobility the reward for having a brave and dutiful son.

“Migration is now socially embedded,” noted Estifanos. “Facebook posts and videos from the men in South Africa all paint a very rosy picture – and even ‘pastors’ in some churches advocate it. That works to allay the fears in the minds of the families.”

The young men themselves, in a mix of bravado and fatalism, “see the risks as worthwhile – if they can make it”, he added.

A smuggler’s story: Dodging the police

Mohammed Abdullahi* used to be a cross-border livestock trader before working at a low-paying slaughterhouse in Nairobi. When he finally quit his job, he relocated to the border with Ethiopia, using some of his old skills to smuggle people the 800 kilometres to the city.

He would typically meet groups of migrants close to the border town of Moyale, load them into a van, and drive them to Nairobi. He was always accompanied by another vehicle that would scout ahead for police checkpoints.

The rise of the jihadist group al-Shabab has led to an increased security presence in the northeast region. So Abdullahi developed contacts with local villages to provide more early warning of where the police might be deploying, and to help him if he needed to go off-road to avoid them.

In 2019, Abdullahi was caught by the police, along with the migrants he was transporting. He was charged with human trafficking and the migrants were deported. The case dragged on until 2021 when he was released for lack of evidence.

The smuggling networks are decentralised and extremely flexible: Routes constantly change depending on law enforcement pressure. A network will be run by a chief smuggler, usually based in Kenya, who outsources to connections in each country. By controlling payments along the corridor, they retain a measure of influence.

But that sway begins to fade once the journey gets underway. “As a migrant, you’re travelling in a group, in the hands of smugglers,” an Ethiopian community worker who supports detained migrants told The New Humanitarian, asking not to be named. “You have no phone, no control, and that’s when abuse can start.”

There is a “lot of deception used by the smugglers over the travel process”, said Lucy Mseke from the IOM office in Tanzania. “They will say the journey is safe, that it will take only a few weeks, but the reality is very different.”

Destination Nairobi

Moyale is a bustling town on the Kenya-Ethiopia border that serves as a base for a number of smuggling networks. A smooth highway cuts through the northeastern drylands ending in the capital, Nairobi. But most migrants are taken instead in groups through the bush, using so-called “panya (rat)” routes, to avoid checkpoints. 

Pictured are a group of smuggled Ethiopian migrants in a house in Dzakeka refugee camp, Malawi, before their onward journey to South Africa. They are photographed sleeping on mats on the ground. Clothes are seemingly hung to dry in the walls around them.
Supplied to TNH
Smuggled Ethiopian migrants in a house in Dzaleka refugee camp, Malawi, before their onward journey to South Africa.

They usually join the main road around the town of Isiolo. Exhausted, they’re packed into vehicles – sometimes hidden among livestock – for the final 270-kilometre leg to Nairobi. As Ethiopian migrants are conspicuous by their features, an absence of documentation, and generally an inability to speak KiSwahili, bribes are paid when police are encountered along the way.

Densely populated Kiamaiko, in Nairobi’s Mathare informal settlement, is just one of a number of hard-scrabble neighbourhoods where migrants are hidden. The community is largely Borana and Burji – ethnic groups that straddle the Kenya-Ethiopia border – and tend to provide the safehouses that are a key link in the smuggling chain.

New arrivals are crammed into apartment rooms or insanitary shed-like structures, locked from the outside. With never enough food or water, they can be forced to wait for weeks – even months – until the next stage of the journey is arranged. 

A smuggler’s story: Mama Anna

Mama Anna* earns $30 a week from hosting at least three Ethiopian migrants at her home in Kiambu County, on the outskirts of Nairobi.

She said she usually has no direct communication with the smuggling network. They just drop off the migrants at her home, and after about two weeks pick them up for the onward journey to South Africa. If there’s any trouble with the police, she said she uses her own local connections to secure their release.

There can also be an element of trafficking, with the migrants forced to work in construction or slaughter houses to maximise the smugglers’ profits, community leaders told The New Humanitarian.

“It’s like a mafia network,” said George Muhia, coordinator of the Kiamaiko Community Social Justice Centre. “It’s very hard to know who the top bosses are, but at the lower echelons, we know who’s involved, and it has become normalised.”

“Kenya has very strict anti-trafficking laws, but we don’t convict the facilitators. Why do we stop at just rescuing the victims and not go after the big shots? There’s something there that doesn’t meet the eye.”

Fabian Oriri, migration lawyer

Smugglers pay around $50 to rent a room where migrants are kept and sparingly fed. “That’s a lot of money around here,” noted Muhia.

Police – believed to have a good idea where some of the safe houses are – hesitate to get involved, until the clamour from neighbours gets too much. Even then, although the migrants may be detained and deported, the smugglers themselves seem to evade prosecution.

“Kenya has very strict anti-trafficking laws, but we don’t convict the facilitators,” said migration lawyer Fabian Oriri. “Why do we stop at just rescuing the victims and not go after the big shots? There’s something there that doesn’t meet the eye.”

The implication of police complicity was denied by George Kiplagat, the commanding officer at Moyale station. “This is organised crime. These people hide their identities,” he told The New Humanitarian. Despite the investigative powers of the police, “it’s very hard to find the ringleaders”, he added.

‘Families have sold everything to get this far’

Tanzania is recognised as a choke point in the people smuggling chain. Around 3,000 Ethiopian migrants are currently in detention, straining prison services, according to the UN’s migration agency, IOM.

In recognition of the problem, a bilateral agreement was reached this year with Ethiopia to introduce transit visas, but because most migrants don’t have passports, its impact is likely to be negligible.

Migrants on conviction are given the option of jail, or a fine of a few hundred dollars. “That’s significantly smaller than what they’ve already paid to the smugglers,” said Lucy Mseke, said Lucy Mseke, of IOM’s office in Tanzania. “But they don’t have anything left. Their families have sold everything to get them this far.”

Even after they have finished their sentences, many detainees are too broke to return home and can be marooned in Tanzania for years. “IOM is doing everything possible to help return the migrants, but can only do so when we have funding from donors,” said Mseke.

Tanzania is the next leg of the journey, but due to aggressive policing, it has become something of a choke point. Irregular entry is treated as a criminal offence, and despite periodic mass deportations, around 3,000 Ethiopian migrants are currently in detention in jails and police cells across the country.

But that hasn’t stopped the travel south. As in much of the world, borders here are an abstract notion for communities that live alongside them. Locals regularly cross informally – bypassing the authorities – and see the business opportunities in helping others do the same, the MMC’s Bonfiglio told The New Humanitarian.

Refugee camp as a smuggling hub

The Ethiopians who died in the truck in Malawi’s Mtangatanga forest had crossed illegally from Tanzania. The vehicle's likely destination was the Dzaleka refugee camp, just outside the Malawian capital, Lilongwe.

It’s more like a small village than a refugee settlement – its centre a hive of small shops and bars. It’s also a hub for migration and trafficking, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

But a handful of relatively large houses look out of place in Dzaleka’s narrow lanes. These are allegedly the homes of the 10 or so Ethiopian-run smuggling syndicates. Double metal gates and high walls topped with razor wire and floodlights conceal inner compounds – far from the standard one- or two-room refugee accommodation.

Smart, street-casual young Ethiopian men drive 4x4s and Golf GTIs – some parked discreetly at a petrol station outside the camp. Although they may own bars and businesses in Dzaleka, or rent land and farm, the refugees The New Humanitarian interviewed claimed it was all a front for smuggling – the real money-maker.

“They introduce themselves as businessmen, but we know what they do,” said an Ethiopian professional working in Lilongwe, who asked not to be named for safety reasons. “They are behind the scenes, working the phones and controlling the networks. They use Congolese and Burundian [refugees] to do the work, and Malawians who can travel unnoticed.”

A senior crime prevention expert, who also asked not to be named given the sensitivity of his work, said he knows of one top smuggler who runs a fleet of 18 vehicles shuttling migrants from the Tanzanian border to Dzaleka, making $2,500 per vehicle per trip.

‘They don’t have any remorse’

Migrants arriving in Dzaleka are kept in houses rented from refugees. There, they wait – sometimes for months – until connections have been arranged and payments received for the next step of the journey, usually to Mozambique and then on to South Africa.

The New Humanitarian spoke to two refugees hired by one of the Dzaleka syndicates to feed and keep an eye on the arriving migrants. They described cramped conditions in a chain of small houses, with threadbare mats covering hard floors, just two meals a day, and occasional violence.

Women on the southern route

Women do not commonly take the southern route, but the majority of those who do tend to travel as prospective brides, according to an IOM study.

Male immigrants from southern Ethiopia, living in South Africa, “do not marry women from other immigrant groups or local women”, notes a research paper by Ethiopian migration researcher Yordanos Estifanos. “Rather, once established, almost all of them bring their would-be wives from home.”

Women tend to fly to Mozambique and then by road to South Africa, or fly all the way. The reason is the extreme risk of sexual violence and exploitation they would face completing the entire illicit journey overland.

The abuse is usually punishment for the failure to pay the next instalment, normally sent via mobile money. “[The smugglers] tell us: ‘Don’t feed that guy’; or they beat him,” said one of the two men. “They don’t have any remorse; they only care about the money.”

Yet extremely poor treatment, or too long a delay, can occasionally result in migrants switching – with the help of their families – to better-performing syndicates. That can cause conflict both in Dzaleka and South Africa, said Estifanos. Retaliation is usually in the form of a tip-off to the police about a rival network’s next border run.

The clandestine nature of the business means it’s hard to assess how many migrants move through Dzaleka. The Ethiopian professional believes a top smuggler can transport 40 to 70 people a month. The men looking after the migrants said the number is far higher – in the hundreds.

The scale of the money generated is deeply corrupting. Law enforcement and immigration officials provide the syndicates with seemingly cast-iron protection and impunity – a business model built on officialdom’s greed.

A police officer recently posted to Dzaleka’s small station said everyone in his training college was aware of the financial opportunities – in the form of payoffs – the camp represented. Although it was known to be a smuggling hub, his commanding officers preferred them to focus on the regular caseload of theft and domestic violence, he told The New Humanitarian, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Is the journey worth it?

In September, more than 100 undocumented Ethiopians were found by South African police crammed into a house in Primrose, an old suburb east of Johannesburg. They were living in appalling conditions, and some were dehydrated and malnourished.

“They had been packed in that house, with one toilet and buckets, and they hadn’t been allowed to leave,” a policeman at Primrose station told The New Humanitarian, and asked not to be named as he wasn’t authorised to speak to the media.

The residential home was a collection centre for new arrivals. From similar safehouses in Johannesburg, migrants are moved to less crowded “dorms” until the final arrangements are made. Then it's a rendezvous at a McDonald’s, or a similarly non-descript meeting point, and a handover to a friend, relative, or sponsor.

At that point, the migrants would likely think their long and difficult journey is over. However, South Africa itself represents a whole new set of burdens, beyond the hardships of the road.

That includes rising anti-foreign African sentiment, a staggering crime rate, a stuttering economy, and a dysfunctional department of home affairs that frustrates asylum applications. And the future may not be any easier: A recent white paper sets out the government’s far-reaching plans to clamp down on economic migration as part of a radical overhaul of refugee policy.

Habib, the chair of the Ethiopian business community, told The New Humanitarian that in the 18 years he has lived in the country, he has never tried to bring anyone from his Hosaina home region. Although he is sympathetic to the drivers of migration, “there is no safety here,” he said – a reference to both the general insecurity and rising Afrophobia.

His concern right now is focused on a spate of recent attacks on spaza shops led by the populist Dudula movement, which aims to register as a political party in time for next year’s election.

None of these challenges are ever mentioned by the smuggling networks to prospective migrants or their families as they prepare to gamble on the journey south.

But even if it were, “the young men wouldn’t pay attention,” said Estifanos. “Their attitude is: ‘However tough life may be in South Africa, it’s still better than poverty at home’.”

(*The names of the smugglers and migrants in the boxes have been changed at the request of the interviewees.)

With additional reporting and research support from Madalitso Kateta in Malawi, and from Mohamed Yusuf, Anthony Langat, and Abdirahman Ahmed Aden in Kenya. Edited by Andrew Gully.

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