OBOCK, Djibouti // Every day refugees fleeing the war in Yemen arrive in Djibouti, pulling into ports aboard putrid livestock boats, repurposed cargo ships and any other vessel that will carry them. But as thousands cross the Gulf of Aden to this tiny nation on the Horn of Africa, a steady trickle of desperate migrants make the perilous journey the other way, hoping to traverse war-torn Yemen and find jobs in prosperous Gulf countries.
“It doesn’t seem there are many things that stop these migrants,” said Chris Horwood, coordinator of the Nairobi-based Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat, which monitors migration trends in the Horn of Africa.
Of the 92,000 migrants who headed from Africa to Yemen last year, 80 to 85 per cent were from Ethiopia, Mr Horwood said.
Between 30 and 50 Ethiopians leave northern Djibouti for Yemen every night, said Burhan Mohammad Abdul, the manager of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) office in the town of Obock in northern Djibouti.
“The problem with the migrants is that they’re not aware of this war going on in Yemen,” he said.
Even when they are told about the war, it usually does not help.
“Whatever we tell them, they think we are just telling them to stop them from going there,” said Mr Abdul. “They just listen to the smugglers.”
At its closest point, Djibouti is just 32 kilometres from Yemen and has long been a transit country for African migrants – mostly Ethiopians – seeking jobs in Saudi Arabia.
The willingness of Ethiopian migrants to cross war zones to reach economically prosperous countries was highlighted last month when ISIL broadcast the execution of nearly 30 captured Ethiopians in Libya who had hoped to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Twelve of the group were beheaded on a beach. At least 16 more were shot in the head.
While the Libya executions and the recent flood of migrant boats in the Mediterranean has put a spotlight on migration from Africa to Europe, Mr Horwood said the Yemen route remains the most popular for Ethiopians seeking a better life.
Last year, he said, of about 40,000 to 45,000 migrants from the Horn of Africa who headed for Europe across the Mediterranean, the vast majority were from Eritrea. In comparison, about 75,000 Ethiopians crossed the Gulf of Aden to Yemen in 2014.
“Unlike Somalis and Eritreans who are moving for permanent settlement – or from their point of view asylum – Ethiopians aren’t looking for that,” said Mr Horwood. “They’re literally looking for a few years of work in Saudi to make some money and come home again.”
As of last week, the IOM office in Obock had helped 350 Ethiopians who fled Yemen get back to Ethiopia since Yemen’s conflict escalated in March.
Between 15 and 20 per cent of those transferred were Ethiopians who had left for Yemen after the war was already under way, said Mr Abdul. He said several who had returned to Djibouti had been warned by the IOM not to go to Yemen because of the war, but had ignored the advice.
A handful of Ethiopian migrants who had been evacuated from Yemen were present at the IOM compound in Obock when The National visited on May 19, but Mr Abdul would not allow them to be interviewed or photographed without pre-arranged permissions from the IOM.
The journey to Saudi Arabia through Yemen is a long one. Mr Abdul said it took most migrants from Ethiopia an average of three weeks to reach Obock by foot. From Obock, smugglers take the migrants on skiffs to Yemen, where they find their way up the western coast to Saudi Arabia. All in, it costs migrants several hundred dollars to get from their villages in Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia, making it a cheap destination for those seeking employment.
Saudi Arabia has cracked down on illegal migrants recently – deporting 163,000 Ethiopians since the end of 2013 and hundreds of thousands more of other nationalities – but that has not stopped the flow from Ethiopia.
Even if the migrants are aware of the war in Yemen, their calculation of the risk against their dire economic situation at home means the dangerous journey remains appealing.
“They certainly are aware that they are running the gauntlet, but the odds are pretty good,” said Mr Horwood. “Very few people are dying in the crossing and even if people are robbed and beaten up and abused en route, I think they see it as a price they are willing to pay to get to Saudi Arabia.”
Mr Horwood also raised the example of the Mediterranean crossings.
“Last year less than two per cent died in the Mediterranean [crossings]” he said. “So imagine if you were a young migrant. Two per cent isn’t very scary is it?”