Emigrants still strong en route to South Africa via Kenya

While the West is fixated with migration to Europe from the developing world, it’s just as common for people looking for fresh opportunities and a better life to journey South-South. The distances may be shorter – most travel is between regional neighbours – but navigating official restrictions can be just as hard.

This week, more than 40 Ethiopians, believed to be on their way to find work in South Africa, were picked up from two houses in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and charged with being in the country illegally. Last month, the police had to rescue another 23 Ethiopians from a house in the Kahawa West suburb of the city as angry residents, in a bizarre case of a murdered motorbike taxi driver, surrounded the property.

One of the Ethiopians interviewed said they’d arrived by bus a few days earlier. Their passports had been confiscated by the Kenyan hosting them, on the promise of jobs to come.

These are not one-off cases. “It’s almost on a weekly basis,” said Bram Frouws of the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat. “It shows that Kenya is a hub for people moving to South Africa or as a destination in itself.”

h3. Looking for jobs

Migration in Africa is overwhelmingly about jobs. “It appears to have many economic benefits for the destination countries as well (and for migrants themselves and origin countries),” notes an RMMS report exploring mixed migration and the development debate.

“Measures designed to restrict migration can have negative impacts, since they raise the costs and risks of migration for poor people and lower the benefits by keeping them in informal low-paid job markets,” it adds.

A recent World Bank study finds that South-South migrants “make substantial contributions to remittances”. Based on a hypothetical scenario of severely curtailed migration, it concluded that “the loss of the remittance income leads to substantially lower welfare in developing countries”.

Ethiopia is one of Africa’s fastest growing economies. But the size of its population – at close to 100 million – means that even a small percentage of people seeking asylum or moving to greener pastures means large absolute numbers.

Destination countries have traditionally been in Europe and the Gulf states, but there is an under-researched southern route, from Kenya down to South Africa – the continent’s second largest economy.

“Ethiopia is doing quite well economically, but to accommodate such a large population means that the economy has to grow at a much faster rate,” said Frouws. “For a while yet Ethiopians are going to continue to leave the country. There are not many jobs here [in Kenya], so they will move down south.”

In one of the few studies of its kind, the International Organization for Migration estimated in 2009 that between 17,000 and 20,000 male refugees and migrants from the Horn of Africa – overwhelmingly from Ethopia and Somalia – try to reach South Africa each year. Frouws said that the regular arrests in Nairobi suggest those figures may still hold good.

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