Child migration is a phenomenon on the rise around the world, with higher rates of reported cases being from the global south. A UN migration report from 2017 mentioned that out of the 258 million migrants 14 per cent are younger than 20 years. Despite the rise of child migration within the African continent and emigration out of the continent, there is an observable gap of reliable data on child migration dynamics. The African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) stated that between 2015 and 2017, there were an estimated 18.2 million child migrants on the move across the African continent. Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS) study also mentioned that the phenomenon of unaccompanied child migration is common in the Horn of Africa where children constitute the majority within the forcibly displaced populations in the region. In Ethiopia, existing accounts on child migration are by-and-large anecdotal.

Hadiya - a hotspot for child migration in southern Ethiopia

Hadiya is one of the administrative zones in Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Regional State (SNPPRS) in Ethiopia. It is one of the main places of origin for Ethiopian migrants to South Africa and is known as a hot spot for child migration, heading both to major urban centers and South Africa. Within Hadiya, Gombora Limo, Misha, Shashogo and Soro districts are areas known for the growing number of child migration. In fact, they are described as emigrant localities.

An interplay of several factors accounts for the rise of child migration from the area. These factors range from economic factors associated with poverty to structural factors such as lack of access to social services and culture of migration. Hadiya is one of the zones in SNNPR known for its high population density and related landlessness where an average of 366 inhabitants reside per square km, a number which is by far larger than the national average which is 102.8 inhabitants per square kilometer.

Confronted with limited socioeconomic opportunities, young children from the area often resort to migration which they consider as a viable livelihood alternative. Furthermore, social capital accumulated in the intricate networks of migrants and other facilitators spanning over decades, and the related flow of information and resources is another key factor contributing to the rise of child migration. In essence, migration is considered as a household strategy whereby young and able-bodied members of household leave for South Africa and support the household with remittances.

Migration is socially accepted and pervasive in the society where decisions about the migration of a family member are often rooted in everyday experiences underpinned by a predominantly societal positive view of migration. This is contributing to the entrenchment of a strong culture of migration, which is among the leading factors for the rise of the phenomenon of child migration. The culture of migration partly relates to the long tradition of internal migration and mobility such as the cultural practice in the area known as Darebacha; a seasonal migration of people and their cattle at times of environmental crisis. Furthermore, the incidents of 1960s-1970s such as the labour migration to sugar factories and the resettlement of the local population to some parts of the country because of the growing population pressure and scarcity of farmland also contributed to the culture of migration.

Resorting to irregular migratory routes

The constraining environments for legal migration often force child migrants from the region to resort to irregular ways of leaving the country. According to preliminary data, the most favourable destinations of child migrants from Hadiya are mostly, Europe, the Middle East and South Africa. The major migratory routes often used by child migrants to reach these destinations are the southern route through Eastern Africa towards South Africa and the western route via Sudan into Libya, across the Mediterranean to Europe. Preliminary findings of the ongoing research in Hadiya shows that South Africa is the most preferred destination for child migrants. Accounts of returnee child migrants interviewed show that they use the long and dangerous route to South Africa crossing several transit countries including Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Mozambique.

The rise in the number of migration to South Africa dates back to the early 1990s, when thousands left the area in search of better economic opportunities. In most circumstances, the migration experience of the child migrants involves internal transit migration phases whereby the child migrants move to bigger cities such as Addis Ababa and Hawassa in order to earn an income working as shoe shiners, street vendors, etc. They often use the income they earn to save for their international migration Even though the income they earn from such jobs is not enough to pay for their migration expenses, this gives them the chance to gather more information and establish network with other potential child migrants. In most circumstances, they use local brokers who have extended network with brokers based in the different transit countries and the destination.

Gendered migration patterns in child migration

One of the key characteristics of child migration from Hadiya is its gendered pattern. The gendered migration pattern is observable in the preferred destinations of young male and female migrants, the routes they take and the factor accounting for their migration. Unlike many other parts of Ethiopia, migration—be it to domestic or international destinations for domestic work—is not a strong aspiration of young girls from the area. It is only a limited number of female child migrants from the area who are bound to internal destinations and in few circumstances to the Eastern route destined to the Gulf States. On the other hand, the most favored destination for Hadiya male child migrants is South Africa.

Different factors account for such gendered migration patterns. One of the key factors is the nature of the labor market in places of destination both for internal and international migration. In destinations such as the internal within Ethiopia and the Gulf States female labor migrants are sought for the domestic care jobs. On the other hand, the type of job available in South Africa, informal trade involving long distances, is considered to be ‘’more fit’’ for boys and men due to the associated risks. The second factor emphasized by research participants is the risks associated with the journey. Returnee child migrants interviewed in the study area emphasized the perilous nature of the journey to South Africa, the challenges faced at several transit points and the multifaceted risks encountered along the way, i.e., thus more fit for boys.

Gendered migration pattern reinforces traditional gender norms

Such gendered migration patterns reinforce repressive traditional gender norms in the area undercutting advances in gender equality. The flow of remittance has caused social inequality between migrants and non-migrants in mate selection. Traditionally, parents of a prospective husband select a young potential wife for their son and approach her parents. It is now becoming standard practice that both parents of young girls, and young girls themselves, often prefer migrant husbands.

Preference in the arranged marriage goes against local social hierarchies based on clan. Hadiya is a clan-stratified society in which some clans have a higher social standing than others. Migration undermines this local hierarchy and related social inequality as in most cases of arranged marriage between migrant men and local young girls; the clan hierarchy is now least considered during mate selection. As such, migration is playing the role of a social equalizer, as it has opened greater social options for people with lower social status.

The available evidence does not suggest that mobility/immobility is not determined by one’s clan status although clan networks still play an important adaptive role in South Africa. The gendered migration pattern and related marriage arrangement is further reinforcing existing gender inequality as parents often put pressure on their young daughters to marry migrants. While the migration of young women to South Africa is often associated with marriage and family reunion, migration to the Gulf is undertaken independently.

Local elders, called Lommana, play a significant role in such arranged marriages. The recent migration-related developments indicate the broadening of the category of Lommana including various intermediaries who in most cases are mediators, friends or aquaintees of the migrant and in some circumstances brokers or smugglers involved in the smuggling businesses. Such arranged marriages, often take place between adult male migrants and young girls who are under 18; i.e., the official marriage age. Furthermore, such marriage arrangements are also indirectly contributing to the revival of repressive gender norm, specifically abduction. Being unable to compete with migrants, non-migrant men are resorting to abduction of girls.

As it is demonstrated above, migration to South Africa is Janus-faced regarding social inequality. If it plays the role of an equalizer disregarding clan status in mate selection, it has also reinforced gender inequality as young girls access migration to South Africa as dependent subjects via wives of migrants, often pressurized by their parents. Yet another migration mediated social inequality is between young migrants and non-migrants; the former enjoying a much more enhanced social capital as the most preferred in mate selection. This, on the other hand, has forced the young men left behind to resort to abduction of young girls to make up their non-competitiveness in the new social marketplace.