The Untold Crisis of Djibouti

Marc Dominianni SIPA Class of 2018

Harsh conditions dominate the climate of the small nation of Djibouti. Daily temperatures regularly exceed 105 degrees, sapping up most of the water and minimizing available shade; yet thousands are fleeing to this tiny Horn of Africa nation, or at least passing through it.

An ongoing drought and political instability in neighboring Ethiopia are prompting some citizens to seek prospects elsewhere, despite tough risks along the way. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries with stable, vibrant economies draw migrants from across the hemisphere.

Over 10,000 Ethiopians pass overland into Djibouti every month, attracted by the prospect of secure jobs in construction and agriculture, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). To reach the Arabian Peninsula, migrants must then cross the 20-mile-wide Bab-el-Mandeb Strait into Yemen.

Strong currents and rogue pirates are no longer the only perils these emigres risk encountering. The civil war in Yemen, raging strong, has made the trek into Saudi Arabia substantially riskier. Over 3,000 Ethiopians have been evacuated from Yemen by the IOM alone since the war began after Houthi rebels deposed the government in early 2015.

“Maybe I will try to go [to Saudi Arabia] another time when things are better in Yemen, but I don’t see a future in Ethiopia,” Ali Ahmed Ibrahim, an Ethiopian refugee rescued from Yemen by the IOM, told the Guardian earlier this year. He was returned to Djibouti with the others, stuck until repatriation can be arranged, which can be a challenge for migrants traveling with no documents.

Djibouti is also receiving thousands of Yemenis fleeing the war back home. Saudi Arabia and Oman, Yemen’s only land neighbors, have closed their borders to refugees of the conflict, leading people to flee across the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait—going the opposite direction of hopeful Ethiopian workers—and into Djibouti. Over 36,000 have made the voyage to date, according to the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS). Over 2.5 million more are displaced internally within Yemen.

Djibouti’s relationship with its neighbors has been rocky in recent years: the country is locked in a border war with Eritrea, plays a contentious role in Western campaigns in Somalia, and is host to foreign military bases used to manage the crises in Sudan.

“Yet the Djiboutian government has decided to welcome all refugees and guarantee them their right to health, education and work. They are our brothers and sisters, it would be inhuman not to help,” said Hassan Gabaleh Ahmed, prefect of the Obock refugee camp in northern Djibouti, according to the International Business Times.

“The [Djiboutian] government is showing the way internationally [with refugees]. They’ve saved thousands of lives. It deserves credit for opening its borders to people who had nowhere else to go,” Tom Kelly, the United States ambassador to Djibouti, told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. Djibouti is a longtime partner of the U.S., hosting its only permanent military base on the African continent, Camp Lemmonier.

The Obock camp, however, has come under scrutiny from international aid organizations in recent months. Temperatures regularly reach 122°F (50°C) in the hot months, and water shortages are common. Some refugees find the conditions so harsh that they actually choose to return to war-torn Yemen, according to an April report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Some returnees are later forced back to Djibouti by Houthi advances and Saudi airstrikes, heading back across the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait yet again.

Obock has received its share of Ethiopians as well, with more than 40,000 passing through the isolated outpost to date in 2016 alone, according to RMMS, as reported by Newsweek Middle East.

The situation shows no sign of improving. Ethiopia has bigger ongoing problems, even if the current drought subsides. “Nothing can be worse than it is at home,” Miftahou Kalil, who originally sought work in Saudi Arabia but returned to Djibouti, told Newsweek Middle East. The escalating issue could thrust Djibouti into a major humanitarian crisis, Jeffrey Labovitz, director of IOM’s Regional Office for East and Horn of Africa, told Voice Of America.

“We went from a normal life to gun battles in the streets,” Mohammed Qaity, an escaped Yemeni, told the Los Angeles Times. The war in Yemen has become an all-out proxy war, with Saudi Arabia and its allies backing the deposed government and Iran backing the Houthi rebels. Atrocities and collateral damage from fierce fighting and airstrike campaigns are well documented.

But could the harsh conditions in isolated, bleak Djibouti really be considered an improvement? Rasha Abdullah, a refugee from the Yemeni port city of Aden now living in Obock, told the Los Angeles Times, “It seems we ran away from death just to die slowly here.”

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