Conceptualizing ‘people on the move’ in the Horn of Africa & Yemen by Melissa Phillips

Melissa Phillips profile picDR. MELISSA PHILLIPS works for the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat for the Horn of Africa and Yemen. She is also an Honorary Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Melissa has over 15 years experience working with refugees and asylum-seekers in Australia, Ethiopia, the United Kingdom, Libya and South Sudan. Her research interests include transit migration, multiculturalism and the role of diasporas.




In a region strongly associated with large refugee camps, the issue of seaborne migrants and asylum seekers is forcing many in the Horn of Africa and Yemen (HoAY) to re-think the nature of displacement both spatially and temporally, to re-consider definitional approaches and to review ways of providing protection.

The phenomenon of seaborne migrants and asylum seekers occurs in two ways in the HoAY. Firstly migrants, mostly Ethiopian, and refugees from Somalia, cross the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden in the hope of reaching Yemen and moving on to Saudi Arabia. In 2014 almost 91,592 people made this journey, with 250 drowning or dying at sea and thousands more being abducted before they arrived.[1] The HoAY is also the starting point for many who seek to go from Ethiopia through Sudan and into Libya, where they take boats across the Mediterranean. Eritreans and Somalis comprise a significant proportion of asylum seekers using this sea route.

Contrast this picture of dynamic movements and mixed populations with the clear and bounded spaces offered by refugee camps such as Dadaab or Kakuma in Kenya. Putting aside the limitations and multiple problems associated with camp-based responses, camp populations can be defined as refugees and their status often remains fixed in time, just as these refugees are fixed in place. In comparison, the hyper-mobility displayed by migrants and asylum seekers as described above is typified by lengthy periods of time and immense distances. The definitional status of people on the move, be they refugees or migrants, is also less clear. For instance an Ethiopian woman who leaves her country irregularly in search of better employment opportunities may start her journey as a migrant, going on foot to Djibouti, only to find herself held by smugglers for ransom. If she finds sufficient funds to pay for a sea journey to Yemen, there is a real risk that she will be abducted and abused by criminal gangs operating off the coast of Yemen, and possibly even trafficked.

Such a sliding definitional scale, spanning the continuum from migrant, trafficked person and, in other cases, to refugee, is linked to the nature of irregular journeys made by sea and land and the use of smugglers and brokers to facilitate journeys. Labels such as ‘mixed migrants or ‘people on the move’ have become convenient catch-all phrases in such contexts, but could they jeopardise the protection space carved out for refugees and asylum seekers?[2]

At a practical level, providing protection to people en route may make it harder to enforce rigid distinctions between refugee, migrant and asylum seeker.[3] For example when a boat is sinking in open seas or police round up and detain a group of people trying to cross a border without documents, there are grave protection concerns for all. [4] In the years to come, as this issue grows in scale and scope, the phenomena of seaborne migrants and asylum seekers will likely stretch and challenge our conceptions of refugees and forced migration even further. Contending with the reality of mobility in the HoAY region is one way to ensure a grounded approach.


[1] For more details and figures, see RMMS Mixed Migration Monthly Summaries and RMMS (2014), Abused & Abducted: the plight of female migrants from the Horn of Africa in Yemen.

[2] Melissa Phillips (1 July 2014), “The effect of negative labeling – Why are we still talking about ‘migrants’?”, Guest Post for Migrants at Sea available at .

[3] For more on this see Roger Zetter (2014), Protecting Forced Migrants: A State of the Art Report of Concepts, Challenges and Ways Forward. Bern: Federal Commission on Migration FCM and Melissa Phillips (2014), Protecting People on the Move: Mixed Migration in Volatile Contexts, Danish Refugee Council Evaluation and Learning Paper No. 3 available at .

[4] In this regard, recent efforts to promote the human rights of migrants at international borders are to be commended; Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights (2014), Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights at International Borders available at .