Djibouti – An important seaport country in the Horn of Africa occupied by less than a million people, Djibouti is at the crossroads of one of the most transited and increasingly dangerous migration routes in the world.

With neighbouring Somalia to the Southeast, Ethiopia to the West and South and Eritrea to the North, Djibouti is a patchwork of ethnicities: its citizens descendants of European 19th century settlers, the Afar from Ethiopia, and the French-speaking Somali.

For decades, migrants have moved through Djibouti on their way to the Gulf on what is now called the Eastern Route. In the last six months, more than 100,000 people, mainly Ethiopians, have migrated to or through Djibouti. With hopes of finding work and providing for their families, they cross paths with Yemenis fleeing the very country use as their entryway into Saudi Arabia.

For many who attempt the trip to the Gulf, it is a matter of life or death. Since the beginning of 2014, International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Missing Migrants Project has recorded more than 700 deaths in the Gulf of Aden.  Far more are turned back from Yemen’s shores.

Of the 150,000 migrants who are estimated to reach Yemen’s shores in 2018, many have become targets for human traffickers, caught in violence from the conflict or locked up in poorly-maintained detention centres.

On the backstreets of Djibouti’s capital, Djibouti City, migrant children beg while trying to etch out a survival. Some wait for intricate schemes orchestrated by smuggling groups who bring them on dangerous journeys into war-torn Yemen, with false hopes of free entry into Saudi Arabia. This route is one of the most youthful in the world with approximately 20 per cent of those who reached Yemen this year are minors, many unaccompanied, making

IOM served 8,400 migrants from January to November of 2018 at Migrant Resource Centres set up throughout the Horn of Africa – accommodating stranded migrants, offering specialized services for children and arranging their transport home. More than 3,300 were hosted and assisted in Obock, Djibouti – the last transit point before migrants board boats to Yemen.

A spike in movement in and out of Djibouti over the past six months, and continued protection concerns on this route, predict a looming humanitarian crisis along the Eastern Route.

A key responsibility of humanitarian actors is to prevent the abuse of migrants and find alternatives that allow for dignified migration. The success of our field operations lies in our ability to collect data, as well as identify and respond to the holistic needs of marginalized populations.

Too often, international attention is pointed in the direction of donor “hotspots” or the most sensational headlines, but we cannot ignore the warnings as we see them. We must act now to save lives of the innocent children, men and women who unknowingly entrust their lives to the hands of smugglers and traffickers. Whilst at the same time we should seek to address the root causes of this migration and find sustainable solutions that respond to the needs of those compelled to undertake this dangerous journey.

Governments and humanitarian actors are heeding this call. In July, IOM, together with key UN and NGO partners, launched the Regional Migrant Response Plan for the Horn of Africa and Yemen, to address the humanitarian-development nexus along this migration corridor. Furthermore, countries from the Horn of Africa and Yemen committed to protecting migrants at last week’s Drawing on Peace Dividends conference in Djibouti.

Central to a holistic humanitarian response is the willingness and capacity of governments to humanely manage migrant influxes. IOM works hand in hand with governments in the regions to protect migrants and secure sustainable and long-term solutions through reintegration efforts, opening additional MRCs, among other efforts.

We can turn a blind eye to the plight of migrants passing through Djibouti, or we, governments, the international community and civil society, can continue on this track – to stay one step ahead of the forecast and act immediately, because our duty as humanitarians demands that we do so. 

This article was written by Wakanyi Hoffman with contributions from Angela Wells, IOM Public Information Officer for the Department of Operations and Emergencies.