In the Djiboutian desert, thousands of migrants brave extreme heat, dehydration, exhaustion and exploitation as they set out on the roads hoping to find work and send money home to their families.
Small country in the Horn of Africa, Djibouti is bordered by Somalia to the south, Eritrea to the north and Ethiopia to the west. The country’s east coast leads to the Gulf of Aden, the gateway to Yemen for Ethiopian migrants seeking to reach Saudi Arabia.
Every day, thousands of women, men and children face the desert in temperatures approaching 50 degrees in the summer, when the shade of trees is almost as scarce as drinking water. The journey is carried out mainly on foot and can last several months.
Djibouti has long been a regional attraction. A strong currency, economic dynamism and security stability in a region plagued by tensions have established the country as a welcoming place. The presence of two major communities – Afars and Somalis – in the country has made it attractive to its Ethiopian and Somali neighbors, where these communities are also widely represented. Since the 1960s, Djibouti has become a place of refuge for refugees and disaster victims from the region who have had to deal with several crises: Siyaad Barre’s military coup in Somalia in 1969, the deposition of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia in 1974, the 1973-1974 drought, the Ogaden war between Ethiopia and Somalia, the overthrow of central power in Ethiopia (1991) and Somalia (1991), the outbreak of civil war in Djibouti (1991) and Somalia (1988).
The ethnic diversification of migrants arriving in Djibouti from the 1990s onwards has modified a generally favourable integration policy. The migrants are no longer Afars or Somalis only, but Habeshas (Amharas, Tigrayans and, more broadly, all Christian populations in Ethiopia are considered Habeshas) as well as Oromo. Having no tangible cultural link with the inhabitants of Djibouti, as is the case for the Afars and Somalis, the new communities live on the margins.
 De l’insertion urbaine à l’administration plurielle des migrants régionaux dans l’agglomération djiboutienne, Amina Saïd Chiré, 2018.
Since 2000, there has been a transformation in the migration path. The exiles’ destination changes and focuses almost exclusively on the Middle East. Djibouti then became the preferred transit territory between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. This migration route is not new. It was used by slavers in the region until the end of the 19th century to link Abyssinia to the kingdoms of the Arabian Peninsula. By the beginning of the 20th century, the system had run out of steam, but the migration routes remained in place. They now benefit smugglers who send thousands of migrants to Yemeni cities, which are in high demand for labor. Then the oil boom in Saudi Arabia attracted massive Yemeni emigration during the second half of the 20th century, creating a call for Ethiopian labour in an emptied Yemen.
It is only since the 2000s that large numbers of Ethiopians have sought to reach the Arabian Peninsula by crossing the Bab el Mandeb strait, north of Obock. This migration can be explained by different factors. The economic aspect is paramount. Since 2018 (Chiré, 2018), Ethiopia has been facing a precarious economic situation. Even though the country has a growth rate of 8.5% in 2018, the poverty rate remains high as it affects 22% of the population, the gross domestic product is very low ($660/capita), unemployment peaks at 25%, and job opportunities for youth are lacking.
Since the 2020s, climatic shocks (continuous droughts in Ethiopia, waves of locust infestation) have also impacted food security and livelihoods, further increasing the outflow of migrants from the country.
Regional instability has also played a role in increasing migration. Internal instability, sometimes accompanied by strong repression (particularly following tensions in the Tigray region and the sporadic upsurge in violence since the end of 2020), is pushing more and more migrants to try their luck in Saudi Arabia (Lauret 2021). As for the collapse of the Yemeni state since the start of the civil war in 2014, it has allowed smuggling networks to flourish, positioning themselves as a response to a power vacuum and monopoly of violence left by the state locally (Lauret 2021).
Djibouti, with a population of about 819,000, received nearly 100,000 migrants transiting through Djibouti on their way to Yemen and then Saudi Arabia between January and June 2022 (with nearly 14,000 in June alone (72% male, 22% female, and 6% minors).
They crossed the borders at night through the desert and mountains around the towns of Dikhil, Galafi, and Ali Sabieh to avoid police controls.
 Passer les frontières dans la Corne de l’Afrique : trois logiques de survie autour des figures du réfugié, du passeur et du rebelle, Alexandre Lauret, 2021.
 Aux marges du monde arabe : Place du Yémen dans les itinéraires de migrants et de réfugiés érythréens, Thiollet H., 2004.
 A region on the move, 2020 Mobility Overview in the East and Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, IOM Regional Office for the East and Horn of Africa, 2021.
 Recensement général de la population et de l’habitat, Ministère de l’Économie, République de Djibouti.
 Displacement tracking matrix, East and Horn of Africa, Regional Snapshot: January – June 2022, IOM Regional data hub, 16 September 2022.
In Dikhil, in the south of Djibouti, most of the migrants have crossed the border to the south and walked for several days in the desert. When they arrive in town, exhausted, they crowd into makeshift shacks. The system is well structured. Positioned at various crossing points along the migration corridor, smugglers move migrants in groups from stage to stage, from the border areas of Dikhil or Galafi to Obock, in the north of the country, where they will embark for Yemen. As soon as a group goes to sea, the whole chain moves up a notch.
Nearly 200 migrants gather in a house under construction on the heights of the city. Two rooms without doors, about 20 square meters, open onto a courtyard. A thin wall still under construction separates the men’s room from the women’s. Once all the women are gathered in the room reserved for them, there is not enough space to lie down. A minority compared to the men, recluse, but without even a door to close their room to intruders, these women are particularly vulnerable to gender based violence.
Among the men, there is a competition to show off the biggest scars from the fighting in Ethiopia. One man has been burned over a large area of his body and has a star-shaped scar on his stomach that is believed to be from a grenade explosion.
This house is not an isolated case in Dikhil. Thousands of migrants are left to fend for themselves in the city. Those who have been able to pay the smugglers receive a meager meal with unsafe water. The others have to beg for food once or twice a week from a local population already under pressure from the scarcity of resources in the country.
In the street, migrants wash their clothes in the river that runs through the city, amidst plastic bottles and other garbage.
Amin, a 28-year-old Oromo from Arsi, arrived several months ago from Diredawa with four other people. They had negotiated with the smugglers to get to Saudi Arabia for 18,000 Ethiopian Birr (about €350). When they arrived in Dikhil, the smugglers asked them for more money. Abandoned there because they could not pay, they now beg in the city to survive.
Amin worked as a farmer with his father. He sold everything he had and even borrowed money from his family. Now he dreams of returning home, but all his land has been nationalized for development programs. “Nothing can help us there anymore. Who will pay for my trip to Saudi Arabia? Everything I wanted has gone to ashes”.
With the intensification of inter-ethnic tensions in Ethiopia and the increase in migrant arrivals in Djibouti, there is a real risk of importing the conflict. The dynamics of reception tend to become more tense, as local populations share more or less cultural affinities with the new arrivals.
On the outskirts of the city, a group of about 15 Tigrayans took refuge in the restaurant of a compatriot living in the region. Visibly frightened and in a state of nervousness and precariousness, they say they have been here for two weeks. They fled Ethiopia with other young people in a hurry, fleeing the violence. “People are all in prison over there. Those who can walk are crossing the desert. The others are in prison.” They no longer have news of those who have remained in the country, sometimes even of their wives or husbands”.
They live in fear every day and seek at all costs to be regularized as asylum seekers: “We don’t want to go back to Ethiopia, we just want papers. Even to walk we are afraid. Many in Dikhil are hiding. We can be beggars, it’s not serious, but we need papers. We are afraid to speak Tigrayan in the street. This is an Afar region. We are intimidated and harassed every day.”
The International Organization for Migrants (IOM) contacted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Office National d’Assistance aux Réfugiés et Sinistrés (ONARS), which subsequently dispatched a vehicle to transport them to the Hol Hol refugee camp, where they were taken care of.
Further north, in the border town of Galafi, a migrant waiter in a restaurant quietly admits, in fear and anonymously, that he has fled his country where warring factions have killed his family. Frightened by the other waiters, also Ethiopians but from a different ethnic group, he refuses to say more.
The entire area between Galafi and Yoboki, once a popular crossing point for migrants seeking to reach eastern Djibouti, now seems to be deserted of migrants.
Ibrahim Mohamed, 23 years old, tells us that, in order to reach Djibouti, he bypassed the Galafi border because of the presence of police officers. To avoid them, his group of a dozen people went through the desert, walking for two days through the mountains.
The migrants’ route leaves Yoboki to the east, heading for the mountains. To reach Lake Assal and the road to Obock, the migrants had to pass through the desert regions surrounding the village of Koussour-koussour. In addition to the risk of getting lost on an unmarked road, the migrants face a particularly hostile climate where they may have to walk for several hours before reaching any water.
Since the installation of a military base in the region several months ago, the flows passing through Koussour-koussour have dropped sharply, if not almost disappeared. Smugglers now prefer to bypass the area through the mountains to avoid controls. They leave the tracks and the small inhabitable areas a little further away from the water points… putting the migrants’ lives in even greater danger.
The situation is no better on the rest of the northbound migration corridor. Once they reach Lake Assal, they continue on the road to Obock. The heat in the area is stifling, in this landscape of volcanic rocks, no trees provide protection from the sun.
IOM has expanded its mobile patrol activities in this area to assist exhausted and dehydrated migrants. This activity complements the patrols already carried out on the northern corridor since the summer of 2020 for migrants returning from Yemen. Between January and August 2022, nearly 4,500 migrants were assisted.
In the coastal town of Tadjoura, migrants gather in the evening on the surrounding hills, near the public dump. A slum has gradually sprung up on the mountains where nearly 500 migrants have found refuge while waiting to continue their journey. A wait of several months for some of them who will have to earn enough to pay the smugglers to continue their journey.
Living conditions are extremely precarious. Rice is cooked in cans transformed into pots, water comes from makeshift wells dug in the ground, a simple suit of clothes must be used as a mattress for the night and they have to walk several kilometers to the sea to be able to wash. Among them, a considerable number of children between 10 and 12 years old. They tell us that on a nearby hill, there are three times as many migrants waiting.
In Obock, the last town before embarking for Yemen, the migrants crowd the outskirts, in the neighborhoods of Fantahero or Alat Ela. For the luckiest ones, they will find a job in town that will allow them to support themselves while waiting for the departure, or to pay the smugglers for the journey. They work as waiters in restaurants, dockworkers on the docks, garbage collectors or improvised hairdressers on the pier.
The smugglers then gather them on the heights of Obock, in the middle of the desert, where they can again wait several days to board the 4x4s that will take them to the sea. There, they will pile up by the hundreds on rafts that will leave at night for Yemen. Last June, IOM found nearly 100 migrants in the desert. They had been waiting for a boat for four days. Among them, five unaccompanied minors aged 15 or younger.
The closure of the borders between Yemen and Saudi Arabia since the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic has brought to a screeching halt the aspirations of Ethiopian migrants seeking economic opportunities.
On the road from Dikhil to Obock, migrants returning to Ethiopia pass those heading to Yemen in an endless ballet of burnt shadows on asphalt heated at times to over 50 degrees.
Stuck in Yemen, trapped in a country at war, many end up in prison or on the street, in a very precarious situation. Those who wish to return home embark again on smugglers’ boats bound for Djibouti.
Spontaneous returns from Yemen reached nearly 4,000 people between January and June 2022 (with 266 in August alone).
Due to the increase in Coast Guard interceptions along the coastline, smugglers are dropping migrants further and further away, sometimes more than 70 kilometers from Obock, the first city. They then have to walk across the desert without food or water. The lack of paved roads and the violent wind that sweeps the sand, erasing and shaping new tracks every day, makes orientation in the desert almost impossible for these migrants. Some go in the opposite direction, into the deep desert that goes to the Eritrean border, drastically reducing their chances of survival.
The first emergency assistance comes from local people who share their meager resources of food and water. To support this effort, IOM has installed water tanks along the corridor that are regularly supplied by the Obock prefecture. Not only do these cisterns, set up with funding from the European Union, increase the migrants’ chances of survival by allowing them to stay hydrated until the Mobile Unit arrives, but they also help direct them to Obock town by marking the way.
The authorities, local community members, and IOM agents placed in the villages along this migration corridor warn the Obock office of each new arrival of migrants. IOM then quickly sends its ambulance to assist them. The speed of the device can mean the difference between life and death.
The migrants assisted in the desert are brought back to Obock. The most vulnerable are cared for at IOM’s Migrant Orientation and Assistance Center (MOAC), where they are provided with shelter, food, hygiene kits, and clothing until they are eligible for IOM’s voluntary return program. In 2022, 1267 migrants were assisted in the MRC. Among them, about 15% were minors and 13% were women.
 Displacement tracking matrix, East and Horn of Africa, Regional Snapshot: January – June 2022, IOM Regional data hub, 16 September 2022.
 Migration along the eastern corridor, report 30, as of 31 August 2022, IOM Regional Office for the East and Horn of Africa, 29 September 2022.