Human Rights

Exhumed bodies of Ethiopian Migrants in Malawi underscore the rising dangers of cross-border trafficking in Southern Africa

Two mass graves were recently discovered in Malawi containing a total of 29 bodies believed to be Ethiopian migrants.[1] It’s a tragic discovery that underscores, once again, the perils of irregular migration along what is known as the Southern Route. Each year, thousands of migrants from the East and Horn of Africa (and sometimes from the Great Lakes Region) move through clandestine paths en-route to South Africa, but only few manage to succeed. The journey is also terribly long and complex, involving capricious trafficking and smuggling agents. For the majority, the experience is one of great hardship, starvation, abandonment, sexual abuse, lengthy detention and death. Malawi remains a country of transit for these migrants.

Studies have shown that, for most Ethiopians undertaking irregular migration along this route, the process involves multiple border crossings, journeying on foot, on buses, trucks, train or boat.[2] As economic downturns and political instability shuffle through various Africa states, people in search of protection or better economic prospects are increasingly finding irregular migration highly tempting. In effect, continental economic power houses such as South Africa remain a tantalizing destination. The net result of this has been the migrant tragedies in southern Africa which the recent mass grave discoveries in Malawi currently underscore. Yet, what should worry us more aren’t only the deaths but burying of these migrants in mass graves. It begs the question of how they died, who found them, who buried them and why. Also, are there potentially more unknown and undiscovered graves? While investigations have been launched to determine these, such actions are typical of trafficking syndicates attempting to cover their tracks by sanitizing the crime scene.

Why People Migrate Dangerously

For irregular migratory routes that are publicly known to be exceedingly dangerous, the question that naturally arises is: why do people still make this journey? Why do people knowingly brave the hazards of such routes and entrust their existence in the hands of traffickers? One answer we might attempt here is to consider the irregular migrant as one who is fed up with the certainty of hopelessness at home and does not consider any other outcome worse than his current condition. Given this circumstance, migrating southwards with complete awareness of the existential challenges becomes a rational choice. Otherwise, one would, for example wonder why the death of 64 Ethiopian nationals found dead in a freight container loaded on a truck two years ago in Mozambique did not deter future migrants. Simply, for the same reason why the recently exhumed bodies would not deter those who would make this trip in the future or who are already doing so as we speak.

For those escaping unpalatable political or economic situations, the default interpretation of reality is that they are likely to be the exception where others have failed. That they would be luckier, and the odds would tilt in their favor. We can assume also that these people are armed with a peculiar hope. The hope that their traffickers or smugglers would look out for their interest better than the political leadership in their countries.

“Illegal Migrants” and the Dangers of Labeling

An equally important question arising from the current Malawian case is the criminalization of migrants, even in death. Refer to, for example, the words of Mr. Peter Kalaya, the spokesperson for the Malawian Police Service. Describing the incident to the media, he remarked that:

All the victims are male and aged between 25 and 40. Between January and September this year, police intercepted 221 illegal migrants, of which 186 were from Ethiopia. Malawi Police Service urges the public to quickly report to authorities any suspected illegal migrants.[3]

The above quote, I must clarify, is not intended to castigate the said official, as he may simply lack the training to comprehend fully the language of politics and their far-reaching implications. That said, the wording of the above statement is indicative of the hostility undocumented migrants contend with and how they navigate life as securitized and undesirable bodies. Moreover, such language appears antithetical to the spirit of Malawi’s TIP Act (2015) which among other responsibilities, stresses its mandate to provide shelter and protection for victims of trafficking. Further, since 2013, several United Nations agencies, particularly the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has called for an end to the pejorative term “illegal migrants” and for the term “undocumented migrants” to be used instead.[4] Human beings cannot be illegal, only acts can.

In any case, international organizations have little control on how state actors react to irregular migration within their borders. The Malawian Government’s frustration as a transit route for Ethiopian and other migrants may partly account for the criminalization rhetoric and other high-handed responses to the challenge of TIP within its borders. But these are not without consequences. The more hostile irregular migrants perceive a territory to be, the readier they are to travel riskier routes. They are also likely to less resistant to the movement plans proposed by their smugglers or traffickers. Often, the opportunity cost of being intercepted (and possibly repatriated) is considered higher than the threat of navigating an unknown path within an unfamiliar territory.


Irregular migration via the southern route has defied both country-specific and regional (SADC) measures to forestall it. Tragedies like what has currently taken place in Malawi are unlikely to abate until the quality of governance among African states starts to embody the aspirations of the majority of its people. It should be apparent to African leaders that the most effective measure against the desperation fueling migration and cross-border trafficking through extremely dangerous routes is because many Africans have completely lost faith in politics.

Mitterand Okorie is a postdoctoral research fellow at the African Studies Centre at Rhodes University, South Africa. He is currently researching on protection against human trafficking as a member of the research project ‘When the law is not enough: Intractable problems of human rights in Africa’.

[1] Africa News: Malawi finds mass grave of suspected Ethiopian migrants, 20 0ctober 2022 <> accessed on 26 October 2022; Princewill, Nimi, ‘Malawi police find more bodies near new mass grave that contained 25 Ethiopians’ (CNN, October 2022), < > accessed on 26 October 2022.

[2] Netshikulwe, Azwi, Henrietta Nyamnjoh, and Faisal Garba. “Pushed to the Margins.” Zanj: The Journal of Critical Global South Studies 5.1/2 (2022): 76-92; Misgun, Biniam. “Strategies and Tactics of Integration of Transnational African Migrants: Case Study of Ethiopian Migrants in South Africa.” Migration in Southern Africa. Springer, Cham, (2022): 215-227.

[3] Pensulo, Charles, ‘More bodies, thought to be of Ethiopian migrants, found in mass grave in Malawi’ (The Guardian, October 2022) <> accessed on 26 October 2022.

[4] International Organization for Migration (IOM):  Glossary on Migration, International Migration Law, 2019, No. 34 <> accessed on 25 October 2022.


  • Dr Mitterand M. Okorie

    Dr Mitterand M. Okorie is a postdoctoral research fellow at the African Studies Centre at Rhodes University. He is currently researching on human rights issues as a member of the research project ‘When the law is not enough: Intractable problems of human rights in Africa’.

By Dr Mitterand M. Okorie

Dr Mitterand M. Okorie is a postdoctoral research fellow at the African Studies Centre at Rhodes University. He is currently researching on human rights issues as a member of the research project ‘When the law is not enough: Intractable problems of human rights in Africa’.

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