Dangerous crossings: migrants' search for a better life in Yemen

25 March, 2016
Drawings on the wall made by migrants explaining the perils of the route. Credit: OCHA/Tamara van Vliet
Drawings on the wall made by migrants explaining the perils of the route. Credit: OCHA/Tamara van Vliet
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Obock, 18 March 2016: Mohammed, 20, is returning home to Ethiopia after spending a grueling seven months in war-torn Yemen as a migrant. He was euphoric to arrive in Djibouti, which marked the first stage of his long journey home.

As with many migrants, Mohammed suffered traumatic experiences during his time in Yemen in search of employment. His leg was amputated after smugglers shot him in an attempt to extort more money from his family when they first arrived in Yemen. Following the amputation, he was arrested by the Yemen authorities as an irregular migrant. But after seven months in prison he was released by the authorities to return home via Obock on the northern coast of Djibouti, with the help of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The dry, dusty town of Obock has long been a transit point for migrants from the Horn of Africa trying to reach Yemen. Every day, hundreds of Ethiopians attempt to make the perilous journey to Yemen in search of job opportunities and a better future, according to IOM, which runs a migrant-response centre in Obock. But since conflict erupted in Yemen, more and more migrants are attempting to return home with IOM’s assistance. The organization helps to evacuate them on boats from Yemen and then onto buses from Djibouti to Ethiopia.

Henry Glorieux, IOM’s Head of Mission in Djibouti, explained: “Obock is one of the few places in the world that sees migrants passing through in both directions: a steady movement of people towards war-torn Yemen continues without pause, while at the same time people fleeing the war arrive, seeking safety.”

Yemen has experienced intermittent conflict for years. But in 2015, violence escalated between Houthi rebels and those loyal to exiled President Ahdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The country now faces a humanitarian catastrophe, with the bulk of the population unable to access sufficient food.
Migrants who attempt to reach Yemen alone face a perilous journey. Many die en route, according to military police records. The first leg involves a four-week walk through the barren mountains of Djibouti to Obock. From there, a dangerous boat ride awaits to take them to Yemen. Most of the migrants pay smugglers to aid their passage, paying half the amount on departure and the rest on arrival in Yemen. But many – like Mohammed – are tortured or blackmailed into paying more.

In Obock, IOM’s reception centre is doing its best to host everyone who passes through in both directions. According to IOM, 4,000 people of 29 different nationalities have arrived from Yemen since March 2015. Of these people, 2,500 have been evacuated from Yemen to Djibouti on IOM-chartered vessels and assisted to return home. This is just a portion of the overall number of third-country nationals and migrants in Yemen. IOM estimates that 12,865 people passed through Djibouti on their way home, but most did so of their own accord.

Mohammed arrived in Obock on 20 March alongside some 250 evacuees from Yemen. Most of them were women and children, as well as some men who needed medical attention. The atmosphere was euphoric as they prepared to return to Ethiopia the next day. Many had been in jail for their entire time in Yemen, while others had scraped together a paltry living in that country for over a decade.

Mohamed’s friend sat near him on a plastic chair in the shade. He would not answer questions – he was too traumatized to speak, said the nurse, Fatouma. She explained that the most common illnesses are malaria and diarrhoea, but many people arrive psychologically traumatized. One evacuee is a four-year-old boy, Murad, whose mother was killed in a bombing in Al Hodeidah.

The oldest evacuee, 70-year-old Mougbel Isse Fadel, is a trained pharmacist who sold medicine in Yemen for more than 10 years. He tries to warn the young boys who arrive in Obock en route to Yemen: “If you thought the journey from Ethiopia to Obock was hard, it is nothing compared to what you’ll find in Yemen,” he says. But little seems to deter them, as most faced extreme poverty, lack of sufficient food and few economic opportunities back home.

IOM also does its best to inform migrants of the risks that may await them, including the dangers relating to irregular migration, human trafficking and the current conflict in Yemen. The organization also produces video testimonies of evacuees to deter others, and in April it will start to provide legal advice for trafficking victims.

Ali Al Jefri is the Manager of IOM’s Obock reception centre. He has little time to rest: one set of evacuees has departed, but 250 more evacuees will soon arrive by boat from Yemen, while new arrivals from Ethiopia are already waiting at the gate. The pace is relentless, but raising awareness of the reality that people will face in Yemen acts as a deterrent.

“It is very rare to see people make a second attempt at a crossing,” he said.
 

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