Djibouti, crossroads of migrants at the doorstep of a major humanitarian crisis

As the oppressive, hot and dusty Khamsin wind blows along the coast of the small fishing town of Obock in North-East Djibouti, a group of Ethiopian migrants are desperately waiting. Barely shaded by a frail acacia tree under a harrowing 45° C heat, they are gambling with their faith by trying to cross the Bab El Mandeb Strait, from the Republic of Djibouti to war torn Yemen.
Waiting in limbo under the blistering sun
For the past few years, mainstream media has focused its attention on the Mediterranean migrants fleeing from the coast of Libya and war in Syria, however little is spoken about the crisis unfolding on the Horn of Africa, bordering the Indian Ocean. Each month, thousands of irregular migrants use Djibouti as both a destination and transit on their journey to the Middle East. Recently, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nations migration agency, has witnessed an increasing flow of migrants and asylum seekers from mainly Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen owing to the critical situation in these countries. The situation has worsened due to aggravating food insecurity, sanitary in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia and the protracted war in Yemen with constant fighting, shelling and bombing in vast areas of the southern part of the Arabian peninsula; a complex and worrying prospect of grave concern for the small country of Djibouti, endeavoring, in spite of its arduous climatic conditions, to foster its socio-economic development and the conditions of its local population.
Most of these irregular migrants are young men, about 25 percent are unaccompanied minors, some younger than 10. Few women are to be seen along the dangerous trek all undertake in one of the hottest place on Earth. Moreover, as they are lured by promises of better life as domestic or construction workers in Saudi Arabia, these migrants pay smugglers to get across, not only facing dangers at sea but also human rights violations, protection threats, physical risks, harassment and discrimination during their journey.
The IOM Migration Response Centre (MRC) in Obock, opened in 2009 has literally become a beachhead on the Gulf of Aden ensuring critical humanitarian assistance to migrants back from Yemen, where some had spent time in detention, enrolled in militias or even tortured by smugglers before being deported by authorities. In collaboration with the Government of Djibouti, IOM provides food assistance, medical support and options for these vulnerable migrants to voluntary return home in dignity.
Yemen has become the theatre of one of the most important global humanitarian crisis. The collapse of institutions and essential services coupled with the worrying cholera outbreak remain a security and public health threat, which runs the risk of an over spilling and devastating effect in Djibouti. Already in September 2016, an acute watery diarrhea outbreak was declared and 150 cases were reported at the MRC only. This year some 20 cases were again reported among the migrants arriving at the centre, all imported from Yemen.
The exact extent of these irregular migratory flows, stock and impact within Djibouti cannot be effectively assessed. The land and sea borders are porous and in spite of strict measures put in place to counter risks associated with cross border criminal activities, communities within this region remain very close to each other and have moved freely for centuries. The Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) recently launched by IOM with the Government of Djibouti should support authorities to better understand these flows and take appropriate actions.

For more information on IOM and Djibouti:

Lalini Veerassamy, a Mauritian at the forefront: Donation of equipment by IOM and Government of Japan to Djiboutian Coast Guard to improve rescue at sea operation
Lalini Veerassamy is the Chief of Mission at IOM Djibouti since August 2016. Originally from Quatre-Bornes, this lawyer, daughter of Dr Deva Veerassamy, has worked within different United Nations agencies including the International Labour Organisation (ILO), UNESCO and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) before joining IOM in 2008. She worked extensively in different countries in Africa and was previously Chief of Mission in Mauritius representing Madagascar, Seychelles and Comoros and the Indian Ocean Commission. Amongst key achievements during her assignment in Mauritius, she launched with the Government of Mauritius, the circular labour migration programme, and provided employment opportunities to more than 500 Mauritians in Canada.