The second reality was the near absence of the age group of 16-30 year olds, both boys/men and girls/women, in both the refugee camp and among host communities. Discussions revealed that this group saw limited economic opportunities in the local environment and had moved to the capital city pursuing low skilled informal jobs with low remuneration. When we tracked these youth, we found that many were stranded in “Balbala,” a shanty town adjoining Djiboutiville, the capital city. Poor skills and lack of resources had left them more vulnerable than before. Some of course had made an onward journey to Obock to explore a journey to the Middle East and Europe.
A visit to Obock town in Djibouti brought to fore another stark reality but this time at the regional level of the Horn of Africa (HOA). In 2015 nearly 100,000 people – nationals from the different HOA countries and inhabitants of refugee camps in the region – had traversed the harsh Djiboutian terrain, where deaths by dehydration is common, to reach Obock. The town is considered the gateway to Middle Eastern countries with Yemen being the first and closest destination.
Consultations with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), local government staff, local community members and migrants themselves, revealed to us that despite the conflict in Yemen and the reverse movement of people into Djibouti, there wasn’t a significant drop in the number of youth attempting the onward journey. The only thing that had changed was the time it took for these migrants to leave the Djiboutian shores for Yemen – the increased cost of the boat ride across the Bab el Mandeb Strait linking the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula – had resulted in migrants working odd jobs in Obock to put together this additional money.
A visit to IOM’s Migration Response Center brought us face to face with a number of migrants. Some were undergoing medical treatment for injuries sustained and/or diseases contracted either during the journey to Djibouti, or
while in Yemen and caught in the conflict. Over 3,300 African migrants have died since 2006, through unsuccessful efforts at crossing into Yemen across treacherous waters. Others were awaiting the processing of their papers to be sent back to countries and communities of their origin. There was essentially an assemblage of battered bodies and broken spirits.
These movements within and through Djibouti, regardless of whether it is considered forced displacement as the result of conflict and persecution, or migration have more commonalities than differences in terms of costs – the hardships faced by those attempting these movements; the vulnerability to physical, sexual and psychological exploitation; trauma, disease and death; and shattered dreams and broken spirits. The commonalities also extend to solutions – investments in countries and regions to enhance opportunities for social and economic well-being for local communities, especially the youth, and efforts to enhance skills and competencies to enable safer and facilitated migration to mitigate the vulnerability.
The specific case of Djibouti, that is one among many others, therefore exemplifies the crossing of and even the merging of forced displacement and migration paths over time. The motivation for the refugees and migrants to move, and routes used are similar, with refugees from Ali Addeh becoming economic migrants by moving out of Djibouti, their first country of asylum.
These realities from the ground demand a pause and reflection on what sustainable and durable solutions can be proposed, as we work to strengthen collaboration between development partners, humanitarian agencies, country governments and regional organizations.