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How growing hostility in South Africa impacts South-South migration

‘Sometimes we didn’t eat for seven days. If you got sick, they left you behind; if you died, nobody buried you.’

An Ethiopian-run shop in the Johannesburg suburb of Booysens, South Africa. Safodien Mudj/TNH
An Ethiopian-run shop in the Johannesburg suburb of Booysens, South Africa.

Tekeste’s* view of his neighbourhood is via a small metal grille through which he serves customers to his cramped shop – really just a converted garage – in the Johannesburg suburb of Eldorado Park.

The grille provides a bit of protection, until somebody stuffs a gun through it and demands all the day’s takings – something that has happened more times than Tekeste cares to remember.

Despite Eldorado Park’s reputation for drugs and gangsters, the interactions were good-natured when The New Humanitarian visited earlier this year. There was a steady flow of people from the surrounding streets popping round for loose cigarettes, sodas, sweets, papers for rolling spliffs, loaves of bread – or just to settle a credit tab.

Nearly everyone began their order with a “please may I have”, and Tekeste kept it amiable. In an Ethiopian accent tinged with the “coloured” cadence of Eldorado Park, he mock-chastised the schoolboys buying cigarettes, and tried to joke – cringe-inducingly – with some of the young women coming for airtime. 

By selling key essentials cheaply, and offering credit, Tekeste’s informal convenience store – known as a spaza in South Africa – clearly meets a community need. Yet he’s struggling. Although he’s on his feet all day, earnings are nothing like what they were pre-COVID. “The economy is down, so people aren’t buying like before,” he told The New Humanitarian. 

Beyond South Africa’s cost of living crisis, Tekeste faces deeper problems. He is an asylum seeker from Ethiopia’s densely populated and land-scarce southern Hadiya region. But although he has been in the country for seven years, his case is yet to be finally adjudicated, so he still only has a temporary asylum permit. It’s a liminal, uncertain existence, without the full rights of a refugee.

A colossal backlog at the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) means Tekeste has to apply for an extension every few months – a bureaucratic hurdle that usually involves paying a bribe to immigration officials. He is also vulnerable to shakedowns by the police, who routinely harass migrants – even those with legitimate papers – and a broader climate of hostility aimed at arriving Africans.

Gambling on a better life

This is not what Tekeste expected when he first planned his journey south, looking for a new beginning in the continent's most sophisticated economy.

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 people-smuggling business tend to be overlooked by migration experts, aid agencies, and government authorities.

Tens of thousands of undocumented Ethiopians – possibly as many as 80,000 – take the southern route each year. Over the past two decades it has become a culturally embedded tradition in southern Ethiopia, where more than a third of households in Hadiya, and neighbouring Kembata-Tembaro, have at least one son who has made the journey. 

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.

Travel is by road, organised by sophisticated but frequently abusive smuggling networks. The average cost of the southern corridor is around $4,800 per person, according to the UN’s migration agency, IOM. It’s a huge expense for families in Hadiya, who try to cover the bill by selling assets, or by taking out loans – gambling on future remittances from their sons.

For Tekeste, the journey began with contact with a broker in Hadiya, arranged through his brother in South Africa – who had already established himself in the spaza business. Worried about the growing insecurity in Ethiopia, and the increasing difficulty to make a living, Tekeste – then a high school student – said he jumped at the opportunity to head south.

He shakes his head now at the memory of it. It took him a year to complete the journey, and he lost a friend who died on the way. He spent six months in jail in Malawi, until a bribe paid by the smugglers secured the release of the group he was travelling with – sidestepping their deportation – and he was afraid throughout.

“I can’t forget it – it was such a bad time,” Tekeste said. “Sometimes [on the road] we didn’t eat for seven days. If you got sick, they left you behind; if you died, nobody buried you... [The smugglers] took everything from us – even your shoes if they were nice.”

Another challenge begins 

Yet even when South Africa is finally reached, the danger doesn’t end. There are regular media reports of the police rescuing as many as 100 migrants at a time from suburban houses, where they have been crammed in with little food, and just buckets for toilets. The authorities regard these overwhelmingly Ethiopian men as trafficking victims

The reality can be more complex, but just as brutal. 

The undocumented migrants are typically picked up at the South African border by Ethiopian-run syndicates linked to the smuggling networks. Instead of handing them over to relatives or friends, as was arranged, they are taken to transit houses in Johannesburg where they are ordered to call their contacts to squeeze one last payment before they are released – a demand that can be reinforced with beatings.

Yohannes*, who owns a spaza shop in Kuruman, in the Northern Cape, said he only knew his brother and a cousin were on their way to South Africa when he got a call from them that they had reached Tanzania. The next time he heard – several weeks later – they were begging for help: They had been abducted at the border, transported to Johannesburg, and the kidnappers were demanding 100,000 rand – about $5,500.

“Kidnapping happens to 99% of Ethiopians coming into South Africa these days,” said Yohannes. “Everyone is scared. You can’t fight these people: They are very well organised, some work with the police, and it’s very easy to get yourself killed. All you can do is pay the money, and get your people out.”

Yohannes has a young family to support, and his shop has been struggling. But family obligation means he has to help: So the two men are now living with him, working in his spaza, and he is guiding them through the labyrinthian asylum process.

The New Humanitarian first met Yohannes outside the DHA headquarters in the capital, Tshwane. He was with a group of other asylum seekers who had driven down from the Northern Cape to get their temporary permits extended – sleeping in the car overnight to try and ensure they were at the front of the once-a-week queue for Ethiopians.

For Yohannes, this would be his twenty-first permit extension since arriving in South Africa in 2010 after deserting from the Ethiopian army – a serious offence, according to the penal code. His old military ID said he had been a corporal, but he explained he went AWOL after being repeatedly passed over for promotion – discrimination, he said, southerners in the ranks routinely faced. 

A dysfunctional government department


South Africa has been celebrated for its progressive refugee regime, which on paper protects free movement and access to basic services. But implementation by a DHA widely regarded as dysfunctional – with poorly trained and overwhelmed staff – undermines those liberal statutes.

An estimated 90% of refugee applications are rejected. Although they then go to appeal, these cases can take decades to reach final adjudication, “and the backlog is now astronomical”, said Nyeleti Baloyi, advocacy officer with the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA). Although the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, is helping DHA clear the appeals caseload, the logjam “has persisted”, noted Baloyi.

In the interim, asylum seekers are issued with temporary permits, which gives them the right to live and work in the country. These should be free, but the asylum seekers The New Humanitarian spoke to said they are obliged to pay roughly 3,000 rand ($160) as kickbacks to fixers, who then pay the DHA officials.

“You can’t get your papers without a bribe,” said Yohannes. “You pay the broker – who are Ethiopians – and they pay the people inside. These are people that have been here a very long time; they might have started out as interpreters, they have the connections, and there’s no alternative to paying.”

Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has acknowledged the extent of the problem. “Nowhere in government is the issue of corruption more prevalent and clear than it is in the department of home affairs,” he noted in a newspaper op-ed.

In 2023, a total of 39,000 forcibly displaced Ethiopians were registered in South Africa – 13,400 refugees and 25,624 asylum seekers – according to UNHCR. Ethiopian migration researcher Yordanos Estifanos says Ethiopians are among the largest group of asylum seekers whose applications remain pending at DHA. 

Jeppe Street, in inner-city Johannesburg, is a migrant business hub – from pavement entrepreneurs to multi-storey trading centres and restaurants. Commerce here, in what's colloquially known as “little Addis”, is overwhelmingly Ethiopian-owned.

But success can come at a price. The police are increasingly profiling Ethiopian business people in shakedowns, Jeppe street traders alleged. That typically involves taking people from their shops and packing them into a police van where they can wait for hours before they are asked for a 1,500 rand – around $80 – payoff.

“It wasn’t like this before, but in the last six months they’ve been targeting Ethiopians,” said Ahmed*, who has been in the country for 17 years – and has formal refugee status. As we watched a police van crawl down Jeppe, he added: “Everybody is affected. It was my turn only last month.”

Like five other refugees with businesses in the Jeppe area that The New Humanitarian spoke to, the police had come to his shop and demanded to see his papers. Before he could produce the originals – rather than photocopies – he was bundled into a van.

“They didn’t want to listen. They didn’t give me a chance,” said Ahmed, who is a diabetic with a heart condition. “They took me by force, like I was a criminal. It was so hot [in the van], I fainted. People were stepping on me, kicking me. I thought I was going to die.” Ahmed paid 2,000 rand (more than $110) to be released.

African migrants have historically faced a significant degree of hostility in South Africa. The common narrative is that they have come to sponge off the state – from social services to welfare grants – and have brought crime with them. Simultaneously, they are also accused of stealing jobs, in an economy that cannot create enough of them.

The evidence, instead, shows that migration is a net positive – like in the rest of the world. Foreign-run spaza shops provide employment to South Africans, as well as opportunities to small-scale suppliers, research repeatedly shows. 

However, in what is a volatile election year, with populist afrophobia becoming politically normalised ahead of next month’s polls, migrant communities are increasingly on edge.

Tougher migration laws 

Home affairs minister Motsoaledi released a white paper in November 2023 that calls for a dramatic overhaul of the migration system. It acknowledges the serious shortcomings in the DHA, but the solution Motsoaledi advocates is South Africa’s temporary withdrawal from international agreements on refugee protection.

The white paper’s underlying premise is that migration is a danger – a source of societal friction and criminal manipulation – and argues that a new policy framework is needed to meet the “new challenges facing South Africa”.

The migrants rights group CoRMSA has criticised what it described in a statement as an attempt “to scapegoat migrants for systemic governance failures” and the exploitation of “anxieties for political gain”.

The Ethiopian asylum seekers The New Humanitarian spoke to were all grateful for the shelter South Africa has provided them – and the potential that exists to make a better life. They had pooled resources to set up businesses – from spazas to bars – and saw their contribution to the economy as positive

But was it all worth it – the perilous months on the road from Hadiya, the asylum headaches, the crime and xenophobia they face in South Africa? 

“No” was the general sentiment. 

“I would never suggest that people [at home] should come here,” said Yohannes. “The experience here is very, very painful.”

*Names have been changed to protect people’s identities.

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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