Irregular Migration by Sea from Horn of Africa to Arabian Peninsula Increases

Reduced conflict in Somalia and an improving economy in Ethiopia are not deterring irregular migration from the Horn of Africa into the Arabian Peninsula, according to the Nairobi-based Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS).

The RMMS, a think tank hosted by the Danish Refugee Council, that includes IOM and UNHCR on its Steering Committee, tracks so-called “mixed” migration from the Horn of Africa across the Gulf of Aden.

Mixed migration is defined as irregular migration that includes mixed flows of migrants – economic as well as asylum-seeking – as well as a “mix” of nationalities or ethnic groups – sharing the same migrant route.

In 2014, the RMMS reports that 91,592 migrants from the Horn of Africa crossed the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden arriving in Yemen – a 40 per cent increase from the 65,319 arrivals in 2013. But it notes that this was 15 per cent fewer that the 107,532 arrivals in 2012 – the period directly preceding the removal of thousands of undocumented migrant workers from Saudi Arabia.

The year began with a low of 811 arrivals in January, but peaked in September with 12,768 arrivals – the highest recorded monthly arrival figure since 2006. It then finished in December with 8,912 arrivals, or nearly 300 per day.

Analysis of the 2014 data shows that not only have mixed migration flows from the Horn of Africa to Yemen returned, they have significantly increased. This follows a dramatic reduction in arrivals in Yemen in late 2013 and early 2014 after Saudi Arabia’s mass deportations of foreign workers and implementation of strict policies for migrants to remain there.

In reviewing migration data from 2014, RMMS Coordinator Christopher Horwood said: “It is noteworthy that at a time when Somalis face less conflict and less environmental stress and when peaceful Ethiopia is experiencing continued high economic growth, migrants continue to flow. Knowing the risks they face, and that they are unwelcome in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, they continue to migrate irregularly. Mixed migration is the new paradigm in the region and globally, fuelled by interested parties that make millions of dollars from migrants.”

Arrivals in Yemen included 71,907 Ethiopian (79 per cent), 19,640 Somali (21 per cent), and 45 of “other nationalities” representing less than 1 per cent of the overall total. This trend is consistent with previous years since 2009, with Ethiopians composing the majority of migrant arrivals. Prior to 2009, Somali nationals represented the majority. In 2013, the breakdown was 83 per cent Ethiopian and 17 per cent Somali.

Data from 2014 also shows a shift in preference of route. The route to Yemen via Djibouti and the Red Sea was previously preferred, with about three-quarters of migrants using this land and maritime passage in 2012 and 2013. The rest used a land and maritime route via Puntland and the Gulf of Aden.

But in 2014 only 46 per cent arrived in Yemen via Djibouti and the Red Sea, while 54 per cent arrived via Puntland and the Gulf of Aden. The RMMS attributes the shift to reports of higher smuggling fees from Djibouti, higher risks of kidnapping for ransom upon arrival on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, and stricter enforcement of anti-smuggling laws by authorities in Djibouti.

There was also a dramatic increase in the number of deaths at sea in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea in 2014. In 2013, IOM’s Missing Migrants Project ( reported six deaths at sea in the Horn of Africa. In 2014 this increased to 265. “IOM believes that this is attributable to increased revenue being made in the migrant smuggling networks, and a proliferation of actors trying to profit from this criminal industry,” said IOM’s mixed migration project coordinator T. Craig Murphy.

Migrant arrival data from Italy also shows a dramatic increase, with Eritreans composing a large part of these mixed flows into Europe via North Africa and the Mediterranean. Total migrant arrivals to Italy in 2014 were 170,100, of which over 34,000 came from Eritrea, representing 20 per cent of the total. In 2013, 42,925 migrants arrived in Italy, of which over 9,000 were from Eritrea. IOM also reports that migrant deaths in the Mediterranean increased from 707 in 2013 to 3,224 in 2014.

Analysis of 2014 data on migrants originating from the Horn of Africa – mostly Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea – amounts to a serious humanitarian crisis in which mixed migration is on the rise. Increases in overall number of arrivals and deaths at sea in the Mediterranean and Horn of Africa underscore the high demand for smuggling services and the complex and profitable criminal networks that move people across borders. Inter-regional commitment and action are required to protect migrants.

IOM believes that the Sana’a Declaration, the Khartoum Process, and the Regional Committee on Mixed Migration are key political instruments that can make progress in better managing migration and saving migrant lives.


International Office of Migration (IOM)

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