By Julia Hartlieb and Angelo Di Giorgi
Even during the current COVID-19 pandemic, migratory movements in and from the East and the Horn of Africa have not stopped – they have simply slowed down. In addition, return journeys have become more perilous, underscoring the need for closer collaboration between countries to make migration safer.
An example of cooperation in return and reintegration assistance provided to migrants is a very active program resulting from a tripartite partnership between the European Union (EU), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and 26 African countries. The EU-IOM Joint Initiative for the Protection and Reintegration of Migrants aims to rescue stranded migrants and facilitate their safe return to their communities of origin, where they can also benefit from needs-based assistance for rebuild their lives.
In the Horn of Africa, the EU-IOM Joint Initiative is now in its fifth year and is all the more relevant as movement restrictions linked to COVID-19 have increased the risks facing migrants in the region. region. To date, thousands of migrants in transit and destination countries have received life-saving assistance, enabling them to return safely and with dignity to their countries of origin.
Between January and September 2021, IOM’s Missing Migrants project recorded 112 migrant deaths in Eastern and Horn of Africa countries, and another 30 Ethiopian migrants perished in a shipwreck off the coast from Yemen in July.
As a result of COVID-19, migrants also face an increasing risk of xenophobia, exploitation and detention.
The pandemic has diverted irregular migrants to unsupervised crossings, where cases of trafficking or kidnapping are even more common. At the same time, higher risks translated into higher fees charged by human smugglers.
COVID-19 lockdowns in destination and transit countries have prevented many migrants from finding short-term jobs, supporting themselves or funding subsequent displacement. Access to testing and medical treatment has also been scarce, especially for migrants who often lack access to basic services in host communities.
In early 2020, when the first cases of coronavirus were recorded in the East and Horn of Africa, the region had a high concentration of internally displaced people. At the end of January 2021, 6.5 million people were internally displaced, in addition to an estimated 3.6 million refugees and asylum seekers.
Although there are a significant number of intra-regional movements in the East and the Horn of Africa, trans-regional migration flows are equally important with tens of thousands of migrants moving abroad each year. Most migrants leave the region in search of unskilled work, mainly as domestic helpers and laborers. Many other movements are forced, due to conflicts and natural phenomena caused by climate change, such as frequent droughts and floods.
There are three major international migration routes from the Horn of Africa: the Eastern Route through Yemen, to the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula (especially Saudi Arabia); the Northern Route, through Sudan to North Africa and Europe; and the Southern Route to South Africa.
It is the eastern route, via Bosaso in Somalia or Obock in Djibouti, which generally represents the greatest number of irregular movements each year in the region. In 2020, however, movements along this route accounted for only 35% of all movements tracked in the region, due to travel restrictions introduced to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. Ethiopian labor migrants, including women and children, make up the vast majority of those using this route (97% and 98% in 2019 and 2020, respectively).
Thus, many migrants from the East and the Horn of Africa continue to bear the risks of irregular migration, including deadly dangers such as drowning at sea, dehydration, starvation and disease, as migrants often cross the desert on foot, unassisted.
What the impact of COVID-19 has shown is the need for increased regional and international cooperation in the governance of migration, in order to make it safer. Such cooperation requires countries to include migrants, displaced people and other populations on the move in national immunization plans – a campaign IOM is already running.
The joint EU-IOM initiative could not have been more relevant now, although it dates back to 2016. What kicked off was the Valletta summit on migration of 2015, organized to respond to the urgent need to protect and save the lives of migrants. , as well as strengthening the governance of migration along the Central Mediterranean migration route.
The program was then extended geographically and on a large scale. However, it retained the original goal of providing stranded migrants the opportunity to return to their home communities where they can also receive needs-based support to rebuild their lives.
In the Horn of Africa, aid totaling â¬ 56.7 million has been funded by the European Union to date, with more than 7,700 migrants in the region receiving return assistance . More than 11,500 returnees have started the reintegration process to regain control of their lives in Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, as well as in Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda.
Funding was also devoted to building the capacity of government and other partners; collection and analysis of migration data to support evidence-based programming; information and awareness.
In collaboration with partners, the program promotes an integrated reintegration approach that supports both migrants and their returning communities, has the potential to complement local development and aims to mitigate some of the drivers of irregular migration. This translates into funding for 42 community projects in the Horn of Africa, with an overall target population of 227,000 people.
The joint EU-IOM initiative also funds a network of one-stop-shops, located at key points along major migration routes. Known as âmigration response centersâ, they provide vulnerable and stranded migrants with life-saving support, including shelter, food, personal hygiene supplies, in addition to health and psychosocial assistance.
In this broad area, the program seconded a migration specialist to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), as well as three other experts to the African Union. In February 2021, an agreement was signed with IGAD to also mobilize more political commitment to expand cross-border child protection responses in the region.
What the EU-IOM joint initiative has shown is that it is possible to join forces to make migration safer. This is particularly relevant as the region is likely to continue to experience increasing international movements of people due to negative labor market dynamics, persistent insecurity and conflict, harsh weather conditions and public health emergencies, in addition to other socio-economic and seasonal factors.
- Ms Hartlieb is the lead coordinator of the joint EU-IOM initiative in the Horn of Africa
- Mr Di Giorgi is Program Officer at the EU Delegation in Ethiopia for the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa