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Migration and Asylum in the Horn of Africa: Causes, Factors and Possible Solutions

Migration across the east and Horn of Africa sub-region is not a novel phenomenon. Nevertheless, it is contemporary idiosyncratic migration patterns and trends within and across the east and Horn of Africa sub-region that this article aims to contextualize.

According to International Organization for Migration, (IOM), the Horn of Africa sub-region is currently one of the regions with a high number of internally displaced persons (IDPs).

This fact explains the large number of migrants who are not only seeking refuge in relatively stable neighboring countries, but crossing into Europe as well.[1]   Although Syria is the point of origin for most of the migrants crossing into Europe, Eritrea and Somalia have also made the headlines as the second and third largest contributors of irregular migrants to Europe as of June 2015.[2] The fundamental question, therefore, is what factors explain the high number of migrants within the sub-region; at times causing them to make treacherous sojourns across deserts and seas to far-flung regions, such as Europe?

Migration and asylum: Causes and factors

One of the obvious perennial factors that have resulted in increased migration within and across the sub-region has been conflicts and wars. The Horn of Africa has consistently been classified as one the most volatile sub-regions across the globe,[3] with the number of IDPs standing at 1.3 million, following the escalation of violence in South Sudan in December 2013.[4] The South Sudan crisis has further been compounded by the two-decade plus long Somali conflict; which has also seen over 1 million Somalis seeking refuge, mostly in Kenya and Ethiopia, with a further 1.1 million being internally displaced. Conflicts have been a significant ‘push’ factor for a range of migratory pattern in the sub-region and beyond.

Other than the protracted wars, periodic electoral violence has also significantly contributed to increased migration within the sub-region. Tensions and conflicts have tended to escalate during election cycles sometimes triggering long-term violence. This pattern of displacement of perceived ‘outsiders’ who are thought to be supporters of either opposing political camps was witnessed in Kenya after the 2007 elections; famously known as the 2007-2008 post-election violence. A similar escalation of tensions was observed during the 2013 elections despite the absence of election-induced violence. Increased tensions have also become synonymous with elections in Kenya, and similar trends are likely to be experienced in subsequent years. In Burundi, latest reports by UNHCR indicate that over 180,000[5] refugees have fled, mostly to Tanzania and other neighboring countries, as a result of election-related violence, escalating socio-economic and political strains in the region.

The issue of poverty due to weak regional economies and its close association to human trafficking has also significantly contributed to migration across the sub-region. Chronic poverty has led to increased number of migrants from the Horn of Africa seeking ‘economic asylum’ mainly in Europe. The prospect of employment and good life in Europe has seen a huge number of young and highly educated Africans pay human traffickers to traverse the sub-region and onto Europe. This factor has been further accentuated by globalization and information technology. The ubiquity of media images of Western culture and lifestyles, due to the denser and expanding reach of information communication technology, has been a critical ‘pull’ factor and incentive pushing youth to migrate from the region. The desire to escape from poverty has led to thriving human trafficking and smuggling networks across the sub-region. According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, there were between 25,000 and 30,000 victims of human trafficking in the sub-region between 2009 and 2013, generating around USD 622 million in ransom during that particular period.[6]

Other factors that have led to increased migration within and across the sub-region include the issue of bad governance. The fragile state system coupled with authoritarian regimes across the sub-region, has led to an influx of refugees and asylum seekers across the sub-region. Eritrea, with its allegedly poor human rights record, currently ranks as the largest producer of asylum seekers and migrants from the sub-region to neighboring countries and to Europe. According to Human Rights Watch, Eritrea’s oppressive laws — which make it compulsory for youths to be conscripted in the national service – have led to increased hemorrhage across its borders.[7] By the end of 2014, for example, Eritreans constituted 95 percent of trafficked victims from the sub-region, with the rest being Ethiopians, Somalis and Sudanese.[8] Most of the migrants who successfully cross into Europe have to tolerate oppressive policies aimed at deterring asylum seekers, sometimes in total contravention of international law.

The influx of migrants and asylum seekers has created myriad challenges for both migrants and their host countries. There have been suspicions and tensions between refugees and residents in the host countries. In most cases, refugees are considered the primary cause of varied socio-economic and political problems afflicting their host countries. The case of Somali refugees, following sustained terror attacks in Kenya by Al-shabaab, is a clear example.[9]  For the Horn of Africa, one of the aspects of the crisis due to increased legal and illegal migration has not only been the loss of lives across the deserts and the seas, but also the hemorrhage of the youth and the educated who constitute the sub-region’s most productive labour force.

Across Europe, the infiltration of migrants, mostly from the east and Horn of Africa sub-region and the Middle East, has seen increased pressure on European governments to formulate stringent policies aimed at restricting the inflow of irregular migrants.[10]

Possible solutions

Several measures can be introduced to curtail the challenges of illegal migration across the sub-region and beyond. However, the complex and dynamic factors that contribute to refugee problems cannot be solely contained by individual national governments. There is, therefore, a need for a multifaceted policy approach from state and non-state actors to the irregular migrant and asylum problems.

Foreign and security policy coordination by countries across the sub-region is, but, essential. Governments across the region should coordinate their policies with regional and international regimes dealing with migration. The need for a coordinated foreign policy on migration is essential because refugees’ home countries contribute to the migration crisis; either by default or design. The Khartoum Process,[11] which brings together the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU) and regional governments, in combating human trafficking across the sub-region, is already a step in the right direction.

Nevertheless, priority also needs to be given to the gradual integration of functional institutions dealing with migration and asylum issues across the sub-region. This will help in streamlining legal and policy issues on migration and asylum. The opening up of borders, for example, is likely to enhance free flow of factors of production, thus spurring economic growth and impeding economic asylums seekers. Other bolder steps can also be taken; for example empowering governments in fragile and/or failed States as they haltingly try to re-establish themselves.

Ibrahim Farah, a former lecturer from the University of Nairobi, is the founder of the Mogadishu-based Justice & Peace Network (Maandeeq– JPN). Dr. Farah, a Nairobi-based academic, has been engaged in Somali affairs for the past two and a half decades through the delivery of aid, political analysis as well as academic and policy research. His areas of interest include foreign policy analysis and conflict studies in Africa and the Middle East; with emphasis on Somalia and the eastern Africa sub-region. He can be reached at

Sekou Toure Otondi is a graduate from the University of Nairobi. His areas of interest include foreign policy analysis and migration issues in the east and Horn of Africa sub-region. He can be reached at


[1] IOM, Regional Office for Horn and East Africa, International Organization for Migration Regional Strategy: 2013-2014, Nairobi, Kenya, p.9.

[2] Jeanne Park, “Europe’s Migration Crisis,” Council on Foreign Relations, April 23, 2015

[3] Goitom Gebreluel and Kjetil Tronvoll, Is the Horn of Africa facing another collapsing state? Aljazeera, 15 October, 2013.

[4] UNHCR, Global Appeal 2015 Update: East and Horn of Africa, p.2.

[5] Aljazeera, UNHCR: Burundi crisis propels refugee exodus, 27 June, 2015. See also BBC: Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza warns against vengeance,” BBC News Africa: 4 August, 2015.

[6] UNHCR, UNHCR Strategy and Regional Plan of Action: Smuggling and Trafficking from the East and Horn of Africa, Progress Report, p.2

[7] Human Rights Watch, Service for Life: State Repression and Indefinite Conscription in Eritrea, April 2009, New York, USA, p.25.

[8] Ibid, p.2.

[9] Aljazeera, Somali refugees urge Kenya not to close Dadaab camp, 13, April 2015.

[10] Christal Morehouse and Michael Blomfield, Irregular Migration in Europe, Migration Policy Institute, Washington D.C, 2011, pp.4-5. Of late, the United Kingdom and France have had difficulties in manning their borders and denying refugees and asylees access to the Channel Tunnel in Calais, France. See for example RT News, British PM urges talks with French president to tackle Calais migrant crisis, 1 August, 2015.

[11] The Khartoum Process, also known as the EU-Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative, which was launched on 28 November 2014 in Rome, aims to tackle trafficking and smuggling of migrants between the Horn of Africa and Europe. See Khartoum Process: EU and African Union launch initiative against smuggling of migrants, ECRE Weekly Bulletin. 5 December, 2014.

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