Mixed Migration in Volatile Contexts: Why don’t migrants and refugees avoid Libya and Yemen?

As the situation in Libya and Yemen grows increasingly insecure, a reduction or even total cessation of flows of refugees and migrants through these countries could be expected. Instead, over a single weekend (11-12 April 2015), approximately 8,500 maritime migrants/refugees were rescued off the coast of Libya, and in Yemen between 26 and 29 March 2015, seven boats with 1,610 passengers, mostly Ethiopians, arrived at the Gulf of Aden coast according to UNHCR. It would seem that the prevailing insecurity in these transit countries provides greater opportunities for irregular migration- especially smugglers – but also increased risks for migrants and refugees as evidenced by the death toll on both sea routes.

While the summer months and calmer weather in the Mediterranean have in recent years seen peaks in boat departures off the coast of Libya, there has been an unprecedented surge in arrivals by boat to Italy with more than 15,000 people arriving so far this year. The EU Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, has characterized the phenomenon of boat arrivals as the ‘new norm’, signalling that boat arrivals could exceed the 2014 total of 170,000. By contrast, migrant and refugee arrivals by boat along the Central Mediterranean route in 2013 totalled 42,925. Across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, there has been a 40% increase in mixed migrant arrivals between 2013 and 2014 from 65,319 arrivals to 91,592. UNHCR figures for 2015 show that this trend has not abated in light of current conflict, and in the first two months of 2015, a total of 18,315 boat arrivals have been recorded in Yemen.

There are several reasons why transit sites become more attractive in conditions of conflict. For smugglers and traffickers, the absence of international organisations and border officials can provide a permissive environment for irregular migration. They are able to continue their business with fewer risks of detection and added impunity; it is acknowledged that smugglers and criminals in Libya and Yemen already enjoy impunity because of corruption and collusion of certain state officials. As key agents of information to prospective migrants, smugglers are able to persuade people as to good times to move and which routes to use. Similarly, migrants and refugees may be seeking to take the opportunity to move, especially before controls are put in place. With plans underway for the EU to outsource naval patrols and possibly establish offshore processing sites in North Africa, migrants and refugees will not wait to board boats to Italy however great the risks. In the absence of comprehensive durable solutions, Syrian refugees in particular are opting for boat journeys as a way to find permanent protection in Europe. Syrians are now also departing by boat from Turkey, introducing another sea route to Europe. With Lebanon imposing visa restrictions on Syrians and Jordan closing its last remaining border with Syria, irregular migration routes into and out of Turkey by land and sea have grown in importance.

More controls are being placed along Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia, which means that migrants and refugees currently in transit could become stranded in Yemen where prices are increasing and fuel shortages are being reported. It would seem that many migrants and refugees are not fully aware of the conditions in Yemen, or the drivers pushing them out of their home countries are sufficiently dire to force them to continue migrating in spite of the risks. The picture in Yemen is now one of people moving in both directions across the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea stretching the capacity of humanitarian actors to respond to migrants, refugees and evacuees in distress – offering yet further financial bonanza to smugglers who now have passengers in both directions.

The presence of well-established smuggling and trafficking networks in Libya, are resulting in greater competition amongst people smugglers that is reportedly pushing prices for boat journeys down. Smugglers have recently been using cheaper plastic dinghies however a recent incident where smugglers shots were fired at search and rescue operators in an attempt to retain control of a wooden boat suggests this type of vessel is a highly prized resource. With humanitarian access severely constrained, and agencies on the ground responding to the needs of displaced Libyans as well as other vulnerable groups, providing information and support to migrants and refugees in-country is a challenge.

The current picture in Libya and Yemen forces a re-think of the assumptions about mixed migration flows in volatile contexts. If, as the EU Commissioner for Migration has suggested, conflict exacerbates irregular migration then greater attention must be paid to ensuring humanitarian channels for refugees, understanding the dynamic nature of mixed migration flows and offering protection assistance to people en route. The role of authorities and local NGOs are also increasingly important in directly responding when migrants and refugees end up in distress. Finally, there must be a recognition of the limitations of deterrent-based approaches, which in some cases might even lead to panic and encourage more departures. A more coordinated humanitarian-based response focused on saving lives at sea and preventing abuse and exploitation on land is increasingly being called for by activists and agencies monitoring events.

Note: This article originally appeared on the RMMS Horn of Africa website.