When Abdo Giro, a 55-year-old evangelist minister and political dissident from southern Ethiopia, paid smugglers 55,000 birr ($3,095) to take him from the Kenyan border town of Moyale to Johannesburg in South Africa, he was completely unprepared for the ordeal that lay ahead.
“It was totally different from what they promised me,” he told IRIN, speaking through a translator.
Instead of the promised “nice car”, he was lucky to end up in a packed mini-bus for the first leg of the journey through Kenya and Tanzania.
The other half of his group of 76 fellow Ethiopians were hidden in a load of wood in the back of a pick-up truck. The two vehicles took rough back roads and travelled mainly at night to avoid detection. When they encountered police, a bribe was paid and they were allowed to continue.
Before they reached the border with Malawi, Giro’s smugglers unloaded the migrants in an area of bush and left them there for five days without food or water while they checked the route ahead.
“We shared the little water we had and ate leaves,” recalled Giro. “Many of us got sick from the heat and malaria; four people died while we were there.” While Giro was hiding in the bush, another group of Ethiopian migrants using a different smuggler were attempting to cross Lake Nyasa. When their overloaded boat capsized, 47 of the migrants drowned.
A week later, while Giro was struggling to breathe in the back of a packed truck travelling through Mozambique, 42 Ethiopian migrants suffocated to death in another truck travelling through central Tanzania. The driver dumped the dead bodies on the side of the road along with 85 survivors and drove on.
There were no deaths in the vehicle that Giro was travelling in, but 16 of his group who were travelling in the vehicle loaded with wood died during the journey.
“I sometimes don’t sleep thinking about [them],” he said. “There should be more laws to punish such inhumane individuals.”
The scale of the two tragedies in Malawi and Tanzania has thrown a spotlight on the thriving and largely hidden human smuggling trade between the Horn of Africa and South Africa, but they are unlikely to act as a deterrent for Ethiopians and Somalis wanting to escape conflict, political oppression, drought and endemic poverty, who view South Africa as a land of relative prosperity and freedom.
“For most Africans, South Africa is like the closest thing to Europe or America and it’s easier to get to,” explained a member of the Ethiopian Diaspora Development Association in Johannesburg who declined to be named. “Many of them already have relatives here.”
Smugglers are capitalizing on the demand for their services and the relative impunity with which they operate by making increasing financial demands on desperate migrants while showing little regard for their safety.
During the last leg of the journey, Giro’s smugglers demanded an additional $2,400, citing the costs of bribes and food, despite having fed their charges nothing but stale bread and water. The migrants were instructed to call their friends and relatives in South Africa and tell them to have the money ready.
After arriving in Johannesburg Giro was kept at a house in the suburb of Mayfair for another two days while his four cousins, who work as informal traders, scraped together the cash to secure his release.
“It will be very tough to pay them back,” sighed Giro who owes his relatives another R2,000 ($244) for the bribe they paid a Home Affairs Department official to secure him a one-month asylum seekers permit that is now about to expire.
Border officials get tough
South Africa has taken steps in the past year to reduce the numbers of asylum seekers flocking to the country. Border officials now routinely turn away would-be asylum seekers who have transited through other countries based on the principle that they should have sought asylum in the first safe country they reached.
Christopher Horwood, coordinator of the Nairobi-based Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat, argues that such measures do little to curb the activities of smugglers, but increase the risks for their clients.
“When borders and policies become more restrictive the unpleasant truth is that migration doesn’t stop, it merely adapts. [It] makes smugglers more desperate to evade police and thereby take further risks with the men and women in their boats, in their containers and misnamed `safe-houses’," he said.
Last year, police in northern Mozambique responded to the large numbers of Ethiopian and Somali migrants arriving on smugglers' boats from Mombasa by intercepting the migrants and dumping them on the border with Tanzania where they spent several months in jail before being repatriated.
Smuggler networks appear to have responded by simply changing their routes. Following the drownings in Lake Malawi in mid-June, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) released a statement noting that the numbers of migrants and asylum seekers arriving in Mozambique has decreased since last year while UNHCR's country representative in Malawi, Caroline van Buren, told IRIN that there has been a notable increase in Horn migrants transiting through Malawi in the last three months.
Groups of migrants are usually intercepted near the border with Tanzania in Karonga District and detained by police until UNHCR can send a team to determine those eligible for asylum who can be transferred to Dzaleka refugee camp.
"Our budget has been depleted in the first few months of the year because there are so many of these groups that have to be screened," said van Buren. "If these are genuine asylum seekers they’d be allowed in [at the border], but because there are smugglers involved they take a route across the lake or through the bush."
A “low risk” business
Three Malawians are facing charges of manslaughter in connection with the migrants who drowned in Lake Malawi, but convictions for smuggling are rare, according to Horwood. Countries like Tanzania still lack specific laws criminalising human smuggling, while local law enforcement authorities are often complicit in accepting bribes from smugglers in return for turning a blind eye or even facilitating their activities.
"The business of smuggling and trafficking is one of high rewards and very low risks," Horwood told IRIN. "The prosecution and conviction rates related to aggravated smuggling and trafficking are dismal in Africa."
More often than not, he added, it is the migrants themselves who face rough treatment and imprisonment when intercepted by authorities.
According to the International Organization for Migration, about 1,300 irregular migrants, most of them from Ethiopia and Somalia, were being detained in Tanzania as of March this year while a Kenyan newspaper recently reported that 190 Ethiopian nationals were doing jail time in Isiolo, a town in Kenya's Eastern Province that is a stop off on the smuggling route from Moyale.
Faced with the debt he owes to his cousins and unsure how he will afford the necessary bribes to renew his asylum seeker permit, let alone secure refugee status, Giro said he now regrets taking so many risks to come to South Africa.
“I’m trying to warn others in Ethiopia not to come, not to believe the smugglers,” he said.