In The Horn of Africa, Irregular Migration Means Dashed Hopes | USAIM

In The Horn of Africa, Irregular Migration Means Dashed Hopes

Robert Paiva's picture


In the district of Meiso Woreda, about four hours south-east of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, it hasn’t rained in two years and nomadic pastoralists have lost nearly all the animals they rely on to live.  In order to survive, they are obliged to group around fixed settlements far from their usual pastures to access a water hole and food distribution. This was part of what we witnessed during a visit to Ethiopia and Djibouti arranged by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in February 2016. The aim of the field trip was to witness the various faces of Ethiopian mobility:  the internally displaced, the would-be migrants stranded in Djibouti, the returnees whose migration dream may have been shattered but who picked up the pieces with IOM’s help and made a new life at home.

As a result of a particularly strong El Nino weather pattern, the current drought is the worst in years and is affecting large swathes of Ethiopia. This has greatly increased internal displacement in rural areas like Meiso Woreda because traditional coping mechanisms have become overwhelmed. Migrating to find work has long been an established lifestyle in towns and villages of Ethiopia, yet now the difficult conditions are worsening. Ethiopians  are aware that employment opportunities are drying up in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, which are the traditional destinations for low-skilled Ethiopian labor migrants. They understand that their land routes across Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen are full of risks from ruthless smugglers, barren terrain and inhospitable climate. They may even be aware that the fighting in Yemen has exponentially increased the danger of abuse and death. Yet, the Ethiopians migrants believe that there is a shining El Dorado awaiting, better than their dire conditions at home and thus they convince themselves that it is not dangerous. They are persuaded that misfortune will not befall them and that smugglers will not rob and trick them. Bad things happen to others. And so they set out.


The dejection on the faces of this group of irregular migrants in Djibouti tells its own story.  They were detained while wandering in the desert between the Ethiopia-Djibouti border and the Lake Assal. Some of the migrants were abandoned by their smugglers, most with woefully inadequate clothing and shoes for the harsh terrain, all dehydrated and hungry. The Djiboutian authorities give them water, food and shelter, along with first aid as needed, but are then obliged to deport them back home.  How many will attempt the crossing again?  No one knows for sure.

In Obock Prefecture, located in the northeast of Djibouti where migrants cross the Gulf of Aden to Yemen en route to Saudi Arabia, the faces are slightly less dejected. They got closer to their El Dorado than the others, but have decided the price was already too high. These migrants decided voluntarily to return to Ethiopia, although it meant failure for many of them.  IOM operates a migrant center to assist those who choose to return home in dignity and help them prepare for their future reintegration in their country. 

Ethiopia has had some of Africa’s highest economic growth rates in recent years. Yet, modifying long-entrenched migration patterns and reducing widespread poverty – both of which still drive many to irregular migration – will take time. In the meantime, Ethiopian women, men and children continue to be stranded in desperate conditions along the migration routes in the Horn of Africa.  For more on how IOM is already helping them, visit www.ethiopia.iom.intand

Robert Paiva
Robert Paiva recently retired from IOM after nearly 30 years holding senior positions in Geneva, New York and San Jose, Costa Rica. Prior to that, he was a US diplomat in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe. His entire career was devoted to migration and refugee issues.

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