Image of a bus and group of Somalian Refugees

En route to Exile: Organizing Refugee journeys from the Horn of Africa towards Europe

Tekalign Ayalew, Assistant Professor at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia, Affiliated Researcher at the Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University


In the face of volatile politics, precarious economic conditions and limited opportunities for legal migration paths large number of Horn of Africa migrants and refugees (mainly Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali) young men and women opt for overland exits through dangerous and long trails across deserts and seas until they arrive in Europe, the Middle East and South Africa. Since the year 2000 Libya has been both a destination and transition node for Horn of African migrants and refugees that use the north-western migration routes towards Europe via the Sudan, eastern Sahara, Libya and the Mediterranean Sea. The stepwise mobility of migrants is facilitated by the engagement and interactions of actors, mainly smugglers known in local parlance as delala (singular) delaloch (plural) in Amharicor semsaris (in Arabic), family members in one’s homeland; former migrants en route and in diaspora; and the local people along the trails. Unlike the official UN definitions, the service of smuggling is not just offered by an independent criminal organizations. Rather it is embedded in and functions through particular transnational social relations and shared nationality, ethnicity and religion among migrants and smugglers that generate the necessary resources to facilitate the moves and know-how. However, various types of criminal actors and armed gangs also engage in kidnapping migrants for ransom, labour and sexual exploitation along these migration trails. In this paper, using the practice of smuggling as a central point, I discuss the emergence and role of irregular migration facilitating infrastructures that support and sustain east African migratory mobility towards Europe as well as its impacts on migrants’ lives. 

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Top image: UNICEF Ethiopia

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