We hadn't driven more than three dusty minutes before we encountered the first group of men clustered under a scraggly tree for shade, resting from their long journey on foot from Ethiopia. Here they waited for smugglers to take them to the boats they would use to attempt crossing the Red Sea to Yemen. I expected them to be more skittish, but the staff from the International Organization of Migration (IOM) explained that they are known to migrants as a helpful, friendly, and professional organization.
The men freely told us their stories -- extremely limited prospects at home led each to pay smugglers the equivalent of US$ 380 -- more than a year's wages in rural Ethiopia. Sometimes whole communities pooled resources to send a few people out; many had borrowed the money. "I don't know how much I'll make...but it will definitely be more than I can make in my home country," one migrant said. The majority were in their 20's and 30's, a few looked too old for hard labor; one 14-year-old should have been in school instead of attempting this dangerous journey.
Having just read this report by the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat, I wondered if the migrants knew they risked kidnapping, torture, rape, and extortion in Yemen. Or, joining thousands of migrants stranded on the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border or possible human trafficking while en route to their final destination. While the migrants knew IOM could help them return to Ethiopia, they were determined, nevertheless, to be among those who make it.
The State Department funds IOM activities as part of a project to assist migrants in Ethiopia, Somaliland, Puntland, Djibouti and Yemen. Irregular migration, what these men were attempting, is often dangerous, and IOM engages in outreach to law enforcement, advises on legal frameworks for improved migration, and raises awareness of the risks of irregular migration.
On the other side of town, another group of migrants were giving up their journey after smugglers abandoned them. Destitute in Djibouti, they prepared to return to Ethiopia with IOM support; the migrants promised to spread the word that the journey was not worth the risk.
The Djiboutian government views the migrants' presence as illegal but lacks the resources to deport the majority of them. On board a Djiboutian Coast Guard vessel, the captain pointed out several recently-confiscated smuggling boats, adding to the 70 or so seized last year. In 2012, the Coast Guard intercepted 5,300 migrants at sea, a significant increase over previous years, but only a fraction of those crossing daily. Food, water, and first aid have undoubtedly saved the lives of many traveling in unseaworthy vessels. Less clear was whether procedures were in place to screen and protect vulnerable migrants being detained. In my meetings with government officials, they emphasized they would like to see source countries take more action. Certainly, only greater regional dialogue and concrete cooperation between source, destination, and transit countries will resolve the region's complex humanitarian challenges of mixed migration.
For more information on the State Department's programs and policy on migration, please visit the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration's (PRM) web page or Facebook account, and follow @StatePRM on Twitter .