Illegal migration has recently become a huge talking point on the world stage. From nationalist leaders railing against illegal migrants, to news reports of people dying while trying to make the treacherous sea crossing from North Africa to Europe, the plight of those trying to escape to other countries to make better lives for themselves is a controversial issue. Ethiopia, with one of the largest refugee populations in the world, is also one of the biggest points of outflow for migrants. But different bodies are trying to protect these vulnerable migrants from the traffickers and smugglers who are trading them like commodities. EBR’s Menna Asrat reports.
In recent years, human trafficking and illegal migration have become an international talking point. Harrowing stories of migrants from Sub Sharan African countries including Ethiopia drowning while crossing the Mediterranean Sea in flimsy boats or being held captive, being tortured, or even sold various points along their route have brought the plight of migrants to the forefront.
Samra Wakie (name changed to protect her identity), a 34 year old woman from southern Ethiopia, was one of these desperate migrants not so long ago. She left her home three years ago in hopes of finding a better life for herself in Europe. She paid smugglers to help her get out of Africa through Libya and to make her way to Europe.
“I didn’t manage to make it all the way there,” she recalls. “There was six of us who went together. The smugglers we paid started out nice, but when the money we gave them started running out, they became crueller to us. Eventually, I ran out of money and my family back home couldn’t send anymore, so I returned.”
Samra was one of the lucky ones. Because she returned before making the perilous boat journey to Europe, she was spared the fate of many migrants who die while attempting to cross the Mediterranean, or fall into the hands of human traffickers who trade them like cattle.
For many, a journey that is supposed to lead to a better life only leads to further suffering. Another migrant woman, who recently returned to the country after being deported from the Middle East, explains. “They don’t care about us. They see us as objects, not people. I know people who died on the journey from the mistreatment and the beatings, but the smugglers who took us don’t care. They demand more money when we have already started the trip, and threaten our safety if we can’t come up with it.”
According to the United Nations, an estimated 200,000 illegal crossings from Africa to Europe have been registered annually since 2015. Ethiopia, one of the countries with the highest populations of refugees in the world, has long been dealing with the problem of illegal migration. The country also has one of the highest migration outflows in the world. However, as the area becomes more lucrative, potential migrants are falling prey to opportunistic traffickers who lure migrants with false promises about better lives.
According to Abebe Muluneh (Commander), director of Security Sector Programme at Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the global trafficking and smuggling business is worth between USD32 billion and 150 billion, although estimates are difficult as the amount changes all the time.
While the terms smuggling and trafficking are sometimes used interchangeably, they are not the same. Smuggling, involves the consent of those being smuggled while trafficking is the acquisition of people by improper means, such as force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them.
In Ethiopia, much of the illegal migration is carried out by networks of smugglers. Smugglers and traffickers operate through legal business fronts, such as officially registered travel agents. The agents provide names of people who will act as employers, or will pose as family members who are already living in the migrants’ proposed destination. These networks often have legitimate business concerns in the country, sometimes even using the money they get from smuggling to buy mobile assets such as vans and trucks.
Of course, most illegal migration is still facilitated by middlemen who charge exorbitant prices to move people from place to place. For example, a journey to Saudi Arabia would cost around ETB 140,000, according to the Criminal Investigation Bureau.
However, with so much money to be made in smuggling people, migrants often find themselves at the mercy of traffickers instead of the middlemen and agents they thought they were dealing with. When they leave their home countries and their families, they are told one thing about the cost of their journeys. Halfway through, the smugglers demand more money, and threaten the migrants with poor food, or even torture, crossing the line into trafficking. Many are beaten or tortured or abandoned in places they do not know if their or their families can’t meet the demands.
Migrants leaving Ethiopia move through four main points. The first way is through Moyale at the border with Kenya, which a route usually used by those attempting to reach South Africa. The second route is through Metema and then into Sudan, and from there on to the northern route to Europe. The third route is through Gambella, into South Sudan, which has become a new route to get to Europe. The fourth route is through Togo Challe into Somaliland, where many migrants make their journey to the Gulf States.
However, all these routes are fraught with danger. In fact, according to a report released in May 2019 by the European Union Emergency Trust for Africa Research and Evidence Consortium, in 2017, there were widespread reports of migrants being treated as ‘slaves’ or captive travellers. There were also reports of migrants being treated and used as collateral or commodities.
During the conference where a report titled ‘Disrupting the Finances of Criminal Networks Responsible for Human Smuggling and Trafficking’ was officially launched, at the Hilton Hotel in May 2019, Paul Stanfield, head of the Organised Crime division at Interpol, highlighted the issue facing law enforcement and potential migrants. “Organised crime groups target the most vulnerable in society, who are so desperate that they’ll pay huge sums to find a better life. By understanding the nature of the crime, we can protect the most vulnerable from the most dangerous.”
Government across the world have been trying to find a solution to the issue of smuggling and trafficking for a long time. In recent years, however, some organisation have been moving past the traditional approaches to tackle the problem from different angles.
In an effort to break up the trafficking networks that are taking advantage of desperate people, the Ethiopian government, in conjunction with IGAD and Interpol, is putting mechanisms in place to break up the financial networks that support traffickers and illegal migration.
This initiative will target the financial structures of the various networks of traffickers and smugglers. However, many governments suffer from a lack of resources and information networks and financial data. In an effort to address this, in 2018, Ethiopia identified trafficking and smuggling of human beings as one of six key risks impacting its people security and economy.
“This is a matter of national security for us,” said Abebe in the conference held last month. “We’ve done some fruitful work so far, and we’ve have results. But there is still a lot of work to be done.”
8th Year • Jun.16 – July.15 2019 • No. 75