1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Fleeing to South Africa

Gwendolin HilseSeptember 5, 2015

Every day, thousands of refugees arrive in Germany. But many African refugees do not see the journey over the Mediterranean as their first choice: hundreds of thousands are hoping for a better life in South Africa.

Refugees standing in tent village in South Africa, behind barbed-wire fencing MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP/Getty Images
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Safodien

They travel thousands of kilometers in trucks, cooped up like animals in the small cargo area. The young men's fear rises every time the truck stops or crosses a border. The past few weeks have seen an increasing number of reports about refugees being apprehended on their road to a better future.

The scenes depicted do not take place on one of the refugee routes to Europe, but instead, in one of the central regions of Zambia. This is not an isolated case but represents a facet that is seldom dealt with by the international press. Illegal migrants traveling along the East African coast are frequently arrested. They often share the same destination: the economic giant, South Africa.

At the beginning of last week, Zambian authorities noticed a suspicious-looking truck at a roadside inspection. The Zambian drivers had hidden more than 100 Ethiopians in the truck. None of the young men possessed valid personal documents, which is why Zambian media now speak of human trafficking. Richard Ots, Chief of Mission for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in South Africa, is critical of this term. "I think it is important to make this distinction," said Ots in an interview with DW. "We find a lot of Ethiopians who voluntarily engage smugglers to facilitate the trip but it is always difficult to see to what extent it is truly voluntary or to what extent they've been deceived and actually will be subjected to exploitation upon arrival."

South Africa is an African migration mecca

South Africa is a popular destination for economic migrants and asylum seekers throughout Africa. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 300,000 refugees live in the country, 11,000 of them are Ethiopians. "We've heard a lot of estimate numbers of how many migrants are actually in SA. And we've heard estimates ranging from two million up to five million," says Ots, and notes that most of the refugees are not registered. According to UNHCR reports, most of the asylum seekers have fled the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia. But more and more people from Burundi, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Zimbabwe are trying to escape political persecution and poverty.

Flüchtlinge in Südafrika
Refugees in South Africa are often targets of xenophobic attacksImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Safodien

Smuggler chains have been forming along the East African coastline: they specialize in smuggling people from the Horn of Africa via Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Botswana to South Africa. The journey is shorter, less dangerous and, above all, cheaper than traveling to Europe. "The human traffickers are making promises to come down to South Africa and that they will have good jobs, a good life and these people make them to migrate to South Africa," says Tamru Abebe, Chairman of the Ethiopian Community in South Africa.

Ethiopia: Some flee, others seek protection

Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world. It ranks 173 of 187 countries in the UN Human Development Index. Nonetheless, the country accepts around 200,000 refugees per year from its crisis-ridden neighbors, South Sudan and Somalia, and provides them with humanitarian aid and protection. Around 650,000 people live in Ethiopian refugee camps.

However, the Ethiopian regime rules its own citizens with an iron hand: Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International regularly report on human rights violations as well as the persecution and detainment of journalists, opposition members, government opponents. "In most scenarios, some of them are also selling their kettles and whatever belongs to them. They just pay for the human traffickers and they flee," says Abebe. South Africa grants the refugees work permits and access to basic social services but many public institutions do not recognize refugee IDs, which means that refugees cannot benefit from these rights. In addition, it is hard to find a job and make a living in South Africa.

South African reality: Xenophobia and unemployment

South Africa's economy has suffered great setbacks in recent years and the unemployment rate has gone up to 24 percent. This development has had a negative impact on the coexistence of the local population and immigrants. South Africans fear that foreigners are abusing the welfare system and residents complain about the newcomers not integrating into local culture. This situation sparks frequent conflicts between South Africans and immigrants. In the spring of this year, severe clashes between the groups broke out: immigrants' homes and businesses were set on fire and six people died in the violent attacks. Thousands of migrants have left the country but that hasn't discouraged others from coming.

People holding up sign with "Burundi" written on it at a protest. RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP/Getty Images
Some refugees have protested at their treatmentImage: Getty Images/AFP/R. Jantilal

"And I think this is now the challenge that I think we need to address, and we need to inform the migrants and the potential migrants in the pre-departure stage of the realities of life for migrants in SA or EU so that people can make a rational decision on whether or not it is worth taking up the chance, facing the risks and arriving in the country where maybe the opportunities are not what they've initially may have thought," says Ots. Information campaigns on legal travel are urgently needed, as are improved living conditions. Ots notes, "But clearly, much more has to be done in order to address this issue by all countries along the migration route, not just along the eastern coast of East Africa but worldwide."

Until now, African politicians have barely said anything about the refugee dramas. For the first time, Ethiopia is trying to crack down on human traffickers and smugglers in its own country. At the end of June, the justice ministry submitted a draft law to parliament. Drastic penalties are planned: hefty fines for smugglers and lifetime sentences - or even the death penalty- for human traffickers.

In collaboration with: Jane Ayeko-Kümmeth