Thousands of migrants traverse the road between Djibouti’s capital, Djiboutiville, and the coastal town of Obock carrying little more than a bottle of water and the hope that they are heading towards a better life. They pass through an arid landscape strewn with volcanic rock that sustains little life besides the occasional pastoralist and his goats. Temperatures average around 34 degrees Celsius in winter and in summer can reach 52 degrees.
It is just one leg of a journey that, for most, started in Ethiopia or Somalia and for the fortunate ones will end with a well-paid job in Saudi Arabia.
The migrants, mostly young Ethiopian men aged between 18 and 30, tend to underestimate the risks of such a journey. In September 2011, the Djibouti government reported that around 60 corpses of Ethiopian migrants had been found near Lake Assal, a saline lake about 120km west of Djiboutiville.
Whether they died from drinking contaminated water or thirst and exhaustion after being abandoned by their smugglers is not known, but Bjorn Curley, associate protection officer with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Djibouti, described their fate as “a symptom of the dangers these people face while making this journey through one of the hottest, most inhospitable areas in the world.”
Jamal Yimar, a mason from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, survived an eight-day trek to Djibouti only to be robbed on the road to Obock of the 10,000 Djiboutian francs (US$57) needed to pay a smuggler for his passage to Yemen.
“Here it is miserable for everyone,” he said, standing outside Obock’s main mosque with about 50 other Ethiopian migrants who sleep there at night. “I have to beg to eat.”
Yimar worked for five months to save the money for this journey but is optimistic about his chances of replacing the stolen cash, crossing to Yemen, a country beset by internal conflict, and reaching the Saudi border.
After some time the problems in Yemen will disappear. Look at my hands – I can work hard, and there [in Saudi Arabia] they pay a lot of money“After some time the problems in Yemen will disappear,” he said. “Look at my hands – I can work hard, and there [in Saudi Arabia] they pay a lot of money.”
Too many to detain
Rather than deterring migration, Curley of UNHCR says the unrest in Yemen may have made it easier for smugglers to operate. Over 60,000 migrants arrived there between January and August 2011, double the number that arrived during the same period in 2010. Obock’s relative proximity across the Gulf of Aden has made it a popular departure point.
In this sleepy port town of about 8,000 inhabitants, groups of migrant men, and the occasional woman, are easy to spot, resting in the shade of the mosque, washing their clothes off the pier or walking towards a large patch of scrubland on the outskirts of town where many of them sleep.
According to research by the Danish Refugee Council in January 2011, others are kept out of sight in smugglers’ homes or on isolated stretches of coastline north of town.
Between July and October this year, a Migration Response Centre on the outskirts of Obock, operated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in conjunction with a local NGO, Association pour la Reinsertion et le Development d’Obock (ARDO), registered 2,500 migrants. Many more are thought to have bypassed the Centre, where staff offer water, medical referrals and assistance to the few wishing to return home, but no food or overnight shelter.
Omar Fradda, Obock’s prefect (top official) puts the number of migrants passing through his town every year at 30,000. “Before, we gave them breakfast, lunch and dinner and paid for boats to take them back to Djiboutiville [from where they were deported], but now it became too many,” he told IRIN.
He receives no additional money from the government to cover the costs of detaining, feeding and transporting the migrants. “How can we arrest them?” said a local police officer, “There are too many, and more every day.”
Migrants like Yimar, who have been robbed by bandits or their own smugglers, depend on the charity of local people for food and occasional paid work carrying loads from boats in the harbour, but there are limits to how much the town’s small population can give the constant stream of hungry migrants.
“Before, they gave us something, but now [that] our numbers are increasing they don’t give anymore,” said Melese Fantay, from Ethiopia’s Amhara region. He has spent the last 40 days sleeping rough outside the mosque and begging for food after a smuggler he had paid his last 1,350 Ethiopian birr (US$78) to take him to Yemen disappeared with the money.
The influx has also strained the resources of Obock’s hospital, where head doctor Helem Arbahim Hassan estimates that 10 out of the 40 out-patients he sees every day are migrants, mostly suffering from ailments caused by their difficult journey, such as malnourishment, malaria and foot injuries.
More seriously, since June about 100 migrants have been admitted as in-patients, mostly suffering from cholera. “They get it from drinking contaminated water,” Hassan said. “Sometimes they collapse on the road and an ambulance picks them up and brings them here.”
Deaths at departure points
Many migrants travel part of the way to Obock by car or truck, but Osman Keno, 21, an electrical engineering student from Ethiopia’s Oromia region, made the entire journey on foot over three weeks, travelling with a group of 32 others he met on the road.
He said they often went for days without finding water and when they did, filled as many containers as they could carry. A porridge called “besso”, made from barley flour, water and sugar, was the only food they had.
Keno’s parents did not know where he was until he phoned them from Djiboutiville and asked them to send him some money. He and his fellow travellers had each paid a smuggler 2,000 birr (US$116) to get them to Yemen, but had no idea when they would leave.
The man arranges them in rows, counts them several times with his stick and then divides them into two groups. Bags of bread and bottled water are distributed. It seems departure is imminent and they will soon be transferred to one of the isolated stretches of coastline north of Obock.
“It is while here that they have no access to food, safe drinking water or shelter from the sun,” said the Danish Refugee Council report. Migrants often wait between three and five days for favourable sea conditions to cross to Yemen.
“Several deaths at the departure point have been reported by new arrivals over the past year. Many new arrivals in Yemen need medical treatment for severe dehydration and acute diarrhoea, and some arrive very ill from having drunk sea water,” the authors said.
Death at sea, either from boats capsizing in bad weather, suffocation or from smugglers forcing passengers off overloaded boats, is another significant risk. Some of the migrants spend their time in Obock learning to swim.
“I’m not afraid,” said Keno. “My parents want me to come home but I don’t want to go back there, ever.”