They couldn’t have been older than 16. Traveling on foot along a barren, dusty road toward Djibouti’s coastal city of Obock, the small group of Ethiopian boys were probably the farthest from home they had ever been. Clutching yellow jugs for water and flimsy plastic bags filled with dry meal as food, they braved exhaustion and Djibouti’s deadly summer heat, most likely hoping to make enough money in the Gulf countries or beyond to secure a more prosperous life for themselves and their families.
These boys were among an increasing number of migrants who are attempting the dangerous journey from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), nearly 50,000 African migrants have already taken the dangerous route across the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to Yemen this year. IOM estimates that hundreds have died along this route. Thousands more have perished during the voyage across the Mediterranean Sea hoping to reach Europe. Over 130,000 migrants have reached Italy by sea since the beginning of 2014 -- more than double 2013 arrivals.
The remote areas near Djibouti’s coastal city Obock serve as launching points for many undocumented Ethiopian and Somali migrants seeking to cross the Red Sea in rickety boats. Smugglers, who charge these migrants an average of $350 per person, often do not tell them they have to cross a sea and an untold number have perished with their dreams in the turbulent waters. These smugglers sometimes strip their clients of valuables and cash in Obock, stranding them until they can gather enough money to finance a trip back home.
To prevent further abuse and exploitation of this vulnerable population, the United States supports a program implemented by the IOM that works with countries in the Horn of Africa and Yemen to manage irregular migration humanely. The program supports a Migrant Response Center in Obock run by IOM in partnership with the Government of Djibouti. The center provides healthcare services, counseling, and referrals to vulnerable migrants without means of returning home, including the medically ill, victims of kidnapping and torture, and unaccompanied minors.
Djibouti and Ethiopia, with IOM assistance, closely cooperate on returning Ethiopian citizens in safety and dignity, transporting many by bus to their home villages. The program supports awareness-raising and outreach programs throughout the region on the perils of irregular migration, including the treacherous journey across the Red Sea and the real danger of abuse that can occur at any stage of the journey. It is information that has saved the lives of 210 migrants this year who changed their minds and decided to return to Ethiopia with support from IOM.
About the Authors: Melissa Sandoval serves at the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Christina Manriquez serves as a Program Officer in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM). Follow @USEmbassyAddis and @StatePRM on Twitter.