When Yemenis fleeing war make it to Djibouti, they often find Ethiopians heading in the other direction
A corpse lies by the side of the road. The man, likely an Ethiopian in his late 20s, is facedown under a bush with his arms stretched out in front of him. He is wearing only shorts and a bright yellow tank top marred by dust and blood. No shoes, no money, no ID. Passers-by heading to Friday prayer are saddened but not surprised.
The man is assumed to be one of thousands fleeing drought in Ethiopia and heading for Saudi Arabia. The journey takes them to Djibouti on foot, then by boat to Yemen, the nearest point on the Arabian Peninsula. From Yemen, they pay smugglers to get them into Saudi Arabia. “The worst part is the heat,” says Zeynaba Kamil, an Ethiopian girl who walked for 15 days through the Djiboutian desert, where temperatures sometimes reach 130 degrees.
Zeynaba has made it as far as Obock, a sleepy port town in northern Djibouti that has become a hub for people fleeing both into and out of a war zone. While Ethiopians want to travel from here to Yemen, thousands of Yemeni refugees coming the other way have landed on Djiboutian shores in the last year, escaping the conflict in their country.
Ethiopians seek shade under parched juniper trees and beg for food by the local mosque. There are about 1,000 of them here, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). A few miles from town, 1,400 Yemenis live in the Markazi refugee camp, a fenced compound surrounded by vast stretches of desert.
The war in Yemen has been raging since March 2015, when Houthi insurgents ousted the government, prompting an airstrike campaign by a Saudi-led coalition. So far, 2.7 million Yemenis have been internally displaced, and over 19,000 have fled to Djibouti. Since the start of the year, the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS) estimates 40,000 Ethiopians, fleeing poverty and the country’s worst drought in 50 years, have passed through Obock.
Miftahou Kalil, an Ethiopian on his way to Saudi Arabia, says he knows about the conflict in Yemen, but he’s determined to go anyway. Kalil was a farmer, but the drought ruined his crop. “Nothing can be worse than it is at home,” he says. Kalil and a dozen others from his village sleep under a tree on the town’s outskirts while they wait for smugglers to load them on boats. Ethiopians pay $100 for a ride to Yemen. If they survive the voyage, they will pay $250 to cross the highly patrolled border with Saudi Arabia.
The man found by the side of the road just a few miles from Obock is hardly the first to die on the trek. Kalil and other Ethiopians bury him in the local cemetery, beside the unmarked graves of three other migrants. They take turns digging in silence, then lower the body into the ground and quickly scatter back to the trees.
Few of these migrants or refugees want to stay in Djibouti. This desert nation bordering Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia is best known for hosting American military bases and has little to offer foreigners besides harsh weather.
Some of the Ethiopians hope the conflict in Yemen will make their trip easier, as Yemeni authorities are preoccupied, but the IOM warns that it’s the opposite. “We’re having to repatriate hundreds of Ethiopians,” says Ali Al Jefri, the IOM’s project officer in Obock, “and many come back with bullet wounds.” Ziad, a recently retired Ethiopian smuggler, claims passage is now more dangerous than ever. He stopped shipping migrants after one of his boats sank and he saw his clients’ bodies wash ashore. Now Ziad works as a fisherman. His advice to those heading to Yemen: “Carry a knife.”
Yemeni refugees, who often see migrants walk past their camp, can’t fathom why anyone would willingly enter the nightmare they just escaped. “These Ethiopians are mad!” says Rania Dheya. Her family came to Djibouti a year ago after Houthi forces took over their hometown, Aden, and “covered the streets in blood.”
Dheya is grateful for Djibouti’s generosity but says living conditions in Obock are too harsh. The camp is fenced to protect refugees from wild animals, but snakes and scorpions often sneak into their homes. In summer, sandstorms blow tents over, and it gets so hot they can fry eggs on the ground. The unrelenting heat is one of the reasons almost 1,000 refugees have left the camp since February for Djibouti’s eponymous and pricey, capital or relatively safe corners of Yemen.
Djibouti has long been a haven for those fleeing conflict; Somali refugees have been in the country since the early ’90s. Unlike Yemen’s other neighbors, Oman and Saudi Arabia, Djibouti gives refugees the right to health care, education and work. But with limited public services and a 60 percent unemployment rate, hosting refugees is a strain on the nation’s scarce resources. “We won’t turn anyone away,” says Obock’s prefect, Hassan Gabaleh Ahmed, “but we need help.”
Ahmed Houmed, a camp administrator for the Djiboutian refugee agency, says refugees are boosting Obock’s emaciated economy. Yemenis buy from local shops and spend hours in the town’s only cybercafé. There’s even a popular restaurant run by refugees where locals and U.N. workers eat malooga, traditional Yemeni flatbread, under the despairing watch of hungry Ethiopian migrants who pick up the leftovers.
As the Ethiopian drought continues, Bram Frouws, RMMS coordinator, warns that “the flow [from Ethiopia] won’t cease anytime soon. If war doesn’t stop them, what will?” Refugee arrivals in Djibouti from Yemen have dropped, in part due to the current cease-fire. But peace negotiations have made little progress, and experts fear this fragile truce may fail like the previous three.
Everyone is in limbo here. Yemenis text family back home, asking if it’s safe to return, while Ethiopians debate which smuggler to trust with their lives. After laying the headstone on his fellow migrant’s grave, Kalil approaches an IOM worker. “I want to go back home,” he says. “Can you help me?” But the IOM doesn’t have funding for voluntary repatriations from Djibouti—all the worker can do is tell him to wait. The translator asks how many others want to return. “All of us,” Kalil says. The 20 men around him nod in agreement.
As the sun begins to set, five of them decide to start the long walk back to Ethiopia.