Irregular Migration

Irregular Migration: Asylum Seekers This Way, Economic Migrants That Way

“Djibouti  City, Djibouti –  As refugees from Yemen continue to arrive in historical ports such as Obock, Berbera and Bosaso, all located in the Horn of Africa, another group of migrants are heading in the opposite direction. Fleeing persecution, drought and vicious cycles of poverty, many Ethiopians are bracing the treacherous waters in a mad dash to Yemen. The final goal is Saudi Arabia, where it is hoped that employment can be found.

By Rod Waddington

Yemen remains in a perpetual state of conflict with little prospect of peace in sight. According to UNICEF, 370,000 children face severe malnutrition and a further 2.2 million are in need of direct humanitarian assistance(1). The prospect of war has done little to deter the migrants from Ethiopia, who rather take the risky voyage than stay behind. As the exodus from Yemen continues, those fleeing the war meet those willing to brave it, both transiting through the tiny nation of Djibouti that acts a hub for arrivals and departures.

Since 2008, over 292,000 migrants from Ethiopia have registered upon arrival in Yemen after crossing the Red Sea from  Obock and surrounding areas on the  Djiboutian coast(2). Many have fled increasing government oppression, particularly Oromians who make up 34% of the Ethiopian population. The recently-announced state of emergency in Ethiopia has further restricted its citizen rights, acting as a push factor for Ethiopians seeking improved living conditions elsewhere. Similarly, drought and dire economic conditions have lead many with little choice but to find work in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where they are able to earn a living and sent remittances to family members back home. Many pay smugglers to be taken from Ethiopia to Yemen, via Djibouti, where they are then expected to complete the trip themselves to Saudi Arabia. Many others, however, cross on foot into Djibouti, passing through soaring temperatures in the Danakil Depression and relying on the kindness of strangers to get them through the arduous journey.

The goal may be Saudi Arabia but almost a fifth of those who arrive in Djibouti either decide to stay or return to Ethiopia. The ones who stay often move to the capital and try to make a living, however with a poverty rate of 40% and an employment rate of 60%, it’s an uneasy task. As of March 2016, there were 22,997 refugees and asylum seekers registered in Djibouti, many from Ethiopia but also Somalia and Eritrea.(3)

The question remains, why do such vast amounts of Ethiopians continue to risk their lives by travelling from Djibouti to Yemen? There are in fact several explanations.

Many Ethiopians are simply unaware of the dangers that lie ahead.  With little access to information, rural Ethiopians may have heard of the economic prospects in Saudi Arabia, only to discover a war exists upon arrival in Obock. After paying a considerable amount of money to a smuggler or making the journey on foot, some simply refuse to turn back now. Many others, however, are aware that a war did take place in Yemen, but have been deceived into believing it’s over by people smugglers. War threatens the business model and therefore lies are told, exploiting the vulnerability of migrants who hope to find a better life.

Not all are simply unaware of the war, but rather, it’s speculated that they see this as a blessing in disguise. The war provides a cover for those making the lucrative journey to Saudi Arabia. Ethiopians allegedly applied the same logic during Ramadan this year. In June 2016,  2,079 Ethiopian migrants crossed the Red Sea from Obock to Yemen, the highest figure in any month to date. It’s envisaged that chaos makes detection less likely.

A final reason, perhaps the most disturbing, is the fact that a potentially fatal journey is preferred to remaining in Ethiopia. War is just another hurdle in a migrant’s plight.

The experience that awaits these migrants is grim. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has left thousands of newly-arrived Ethiopians with little prospect of crossing the country, instead becoming victim to the conflict themselves. As a result, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) have begun chartering boats back to Djibouti for the migrants and supporting their return to Ethiopia.  In an attempt to stem the flow of migrants heading towards Yemen, the IOM has also called on regional authorities to combat people smuggling.

The results are yet to be known, but it can only be hoped that in the future the migrants from Ethiopia will choose an alternate route in order to avoid the  to dangers lying ahead in Yemen.


(1) https://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/yemen_85651.html
(2)http://www.regionalmms.org/index.php/country-profiles/djibouti
(3) http://www.regionalmms.org/index.php/country-profiles/djibouti
Matthew Abbey

Matthew Abbey

Matthew Abbey was born in Australia but holds dual Australian and British nationality. He graduated from Monash University with a Bachelor of Arts, focusing on international relations and human rights. In addition, he completed part of a Graduate Diploma of Human Rights Law at the University of New South Wales, taking courses on International Criminal Law, International Refugee Law and International Human Rights Law. He is also a prospective Master's student at Sciences Po, Paris, where he will complete a Master of Human Rights and Humanitarian Action.

Matthew has experience working with the Human Rights Defender of the Republic of Armenia, focusing on women's rights. He also interned with Human Rights Watch Australia, contributing to the organisation's work on Ethiopia. More recently, he has begun interning with the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, contributing his expertise on human rights to the organisation. He also has interests in investigative reporting.

Matthew is strongly interested in conflict analysis, environmental wars, migration and social movements, dedicating an extended essay in his Bachelor degree to Western Sahara's independence movement.
Matthew Abbey

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